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Detail from the Bawi't Icon. Reproduced by courtesy 

the Muse'e du Louvre. 

A History of 
Eastern Christianity 

Aziz S. Atiya 

Distinguished Professor of History, 
University of Utah 

Methuen & Co Ltd • 11 New Fetter Lane • London EC4 

First published 1968 
by Methuen and Co Ltd 
11 New Fetter Lane , London EC4 
©1968 A%i% Atiya 
Printed in Great Britain 
by Butler and Tanner Ltd , Fro me and London 

Set in Monotype Garam on d 



Acknowledgements page 


List of Maps 



The Term ‘Copt’ 

Coptic Language 
Ancient Egyptian Religion 
Flight of the Holy Family 


St Mark the Founder 
Age of Persecution 
The Catechetical School 

Saints and I leretics: Age of Athanasius and Cyril 

Missionary Enterprise 
(Ecumenical Movement 
Monastic Rule 


Monophysitism versus Diophysitism 
The Henoticon 


The Arab Conquest 
First Five Centuries 
Age of the Crusades 


The Ottoman Turks 
The Copts under the French 
Age of Cyril IV, Father of Coptic Reform 
Cyril V: Clerical Conservatism versus Popular Constitutionalism 
Coming of the Missionary 
An Innovation 
Modern Reform 

Internationalism and (Ecumenicity 













The Hierarchy 
Rites and Ceremonials 
Coptic Art 
Coptic Architecture 
Coptic Music 
Coptic Literature 


Historical Background 
Church Origins and Development 
Ethiopian Faith and Culture 



Historical Setting 

Apostolic Visitations and Early History 
Nicsea to Chalcedon 
Jacob Baradasus 
Ascetics and Stylites 


Under the Caliphate 
First Three Centuries 
Age of Decline 
Mongols, Turks and Kurds 
Missionary Movement 


The Hierarchy 
Rites and Liturgy 
Art and Architecture 



Age of Legend 
Historic Origins 
Nestorians in Persia 



Central Asia 

Other Places 


First Three Centuries 
Beginning of Decline 


Seclusion, Schism and Re-Discovery 
The Last Phase 


The Hierarchy 
Rites and Liturgy 
Art and Architecture 
Waning of Syriac Literature 



General Remarks 
Historical Background 


Pre-Gregorian Christianity and the Age of Legend 
St Gregory the Illuminator 

Fourth-Century Reform and the Armenian Bible 
The Armenians and Chalcedon 


The Caliphate 
The Crusades 
The Five Patriarchs 
Coming of the Missionary 


General Character 

Liturgy and Armenian Rites 



Art and Architecture 

page 257 

2 77 



3 D 


34 2 





Malabar and its People 
The St Thomas Tradition 
Pre-Portuguese History 
The Portuguese and Romanism 
Schisms, Confusions and Solutions 

page 357 

Social Setting 
Education and the Bible 
The Hierarchy 
Faith and Rites 




St Maro and the Age of Legend 
St John Maron and the Maronites 
The Crusades and Romanization 


39 1 



Maronites and Druzes: Massacres of the Sixties 
The Church, Independence and Nationalism 


The Hierarchy 
Rites and Liturgies 
Maronite Culture 



The Pentapolis 

Advent of Islam: Beginning of the End 



List of Plates 










Professor Kurt Weitzmann of Princeton University, Dr Wachtang Djobadze 
of the University of Utah, Mr Fred Anderegg of the University of Michigan, 
Mr Anis Rizkallah of the Institute of Coptic Studies and Dr Otto Meinardus 
of the American University at Cairo have generously supplied me with much 
of their photographic material from which I made a selection of some of my 
illustrations. I am truly thankful to all of them for their immediate response 
to my request. Acknowledgement should also be made to the authorities of 
the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the 
Coptic Museum in Cairo for permission to reproduce some of their valuable 
art objects. 

A. S. AT IY A 




The present volume, though the fulfilment of a lifelong vow, saw its begin¬ 
nings only during the academic year 1956-7 when I had the privilege of 
occupying the Henry W. Luce Visiting Professorship of World Christianity 
at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. It was then that I delivered 
a course of lectures in which I tried to outline the essentials of the extensive 
and complex but highly interesting subject of the Eastern Christian churches. 
From the very start I limited my thesis to the ancient non-Greek family of 
churches. Those were the Coptic and Ethiopic, the Jacobite, Nestorian, 
Armenian, Indian, Maronite, and the vanished churches of Nubia and North 
Africa. 1 As will be seen, the major churches of the Christian East were of 
Apostolic origin, and they invariably sprang into existence within living 
memory of the Ascension of Our Lord. Thus their importance in the early 
formative years of the faith, and their unbroken succession throughout the 
centuries leave no room for doubt as to the paramount value of this chapter 

1 It has been suggested that the Georgian Church might have been included in our 
survey. But, though closely associated with Armenia in its earliest Christianity, Georgia 
chose the Western road from Chalcedon in 451 and became a member of the Greek family. 
Consequently, it has been considered outside our designated field. However, for reference, 
the following is a short bibliographical notice on Georgia and its Church: W. A. Allen, 
A History of the Georgian People (London, 1932); M. F. Bossct, Plistoire de la georgie, 3 vols. 
(Sainte-Petersbourg, 1849-5 8); E. T. Dowling, Sketches of Georgian Church History (London, 
1912); P. Joselian, A Short History of the Georgian Church , tr. from Russian by S. C. Malan 
(London, 1866); J. Karst, Littcrature georgienne chretienne (Paris, 1934); D. M. Lang, Lives 
and Legends of the Georgian Saints , selected and tr. from original texts (London, 1956); ibid., 
A Modern History of Georgia (London, 1963); Jurgis Paltrusaitis, Ltudes sur Part medieval 
en Georgie et en Armenie (Paris, 1929); M. Tamarati, L*eglise georgienne des origines jtisqu a nos 
jours (Rome, 1910). 

Some original source material has been published in the Scriptores Iherici series by 
M. Tarchinisivli and G. Garitte as part of the Corpus Script or um Christianorum Oricntalium. 
Other material is still unpublished and in some cases unknown, such as the Codex Georgi- 
atiuSy which I discovered in the library of the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai 
in 1950. This is the oldest Georgian psalter inscribed on Egyptian papyrus which I showed 
to Mr Garitte during the Mount Sinai Expedition conducted by the Library of Congress 
and Alexandria University for microfilming its manuscripts. Since that time, I returned 
to the monastery to mount the fragile leaves under glass for preservation. The monastery 
also possesses a number of icons of Georgian provenance which have been photographed 
by the second Mount Sinai Expedition of Princeton and Michigan. 



in Christian annals. I have tried to see and to judge the bare facts of the 
primitive Christianity of the East apart from the later accretions, and the 
barriers of mediaeval and modern polemics. Indeed, well-meaning theologians 
and brilliant interpreters of Christian sects and churches seem by their argu¬ 
ment, to have caused the Western mind to become oblivious to much of the 
purity and simplicity of the Christian origins of the East. 

It was on the occasion of those lectures that Mr Melvin Arnold of Harper 
and Row approached me with the suggestion that I might formulate and 
elaborate my notes for publication in a single volume under the auspices of his 
house. The attraction of the proposal was overpowering in spite of my aware¬ 
ness of the magnitude of the task. Fortunately, a year of complete freedom of 
action spent at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study afforded me the 
time to accumulate the essential data of my theme from the wealth of material 
in the seminary collections and splendid libraries of the eastern states. Yet 
this proved to be merely one stage in the fulfilment of a difficult and almost 
forbidding project. But my hand was already on the plough, and it was not 
possible for me to look behind. It is my hope that the years I have since devoted 
to this work have not been spent in vain. 

The material presented in the following pages must necessarily be regarded 
as a modest beginning, and not the end. My primary aim has been to make a 
brief survey of the story of each church from its foundation until approxi¬ 
mately our own times, with emphasis on the historical factors at play in 
the genesis of world religious events. Often, as in the case of the disputed 
oecumenical movement of the fourth and fifth centuries, I have felt that the 
elements of secular politics were drowned in an ocean of theological polemics. 
It will be noted that some churches of lesser importance in our day once had 
a most glorious ecclesiastical career. Thus the accomplishments of the Alex¬ 
andrine divines, and the vast missionary enterprises of the Copts in the West 
and of the Nestorians in the East are objects of wonder and admiration. 

The danger of reading the past through the present must be averted if we 
are to paint a true picture of the Eastern churches whose claim to Apostolic 
succession is their pride and glory. Nothing is as distasteful to the Eastern 
mind as the allegations reiterated in numerous writings by responsible co¬ 
religionists that the Christians of the East are schismatics, worse than heretics. 
Those bearers of the fire of the faith in untold and distant terrains of bygone 
days question the theory of schism on the basis that the early churches of 
primitive Christianity had developed in the spirit of harmonious brotherhood 
and parallelism. In reality, the need for amending a multitude of such unilateral 
verdicts is nowadays increasingly felt in most camps. 

For a fuller understanding of each church, I have concluded my accounts 
with an enquiry into the institutional and cultural aspects and habits of every 
community, summarizing the hierarchical organization of the various 


churches, their rites and ceremonials, ecclesiastical art and architecture, and 
religious music and literature. 

Since all these accounts are in the nature of general background rather than 
detailed and intensive studies, it has been my policy to supplement them with 
comprehensive bibliographical footnotes. These are intended as a guide to 
future researchers in the vast labyrinth of sources both ancient and modern. 
Thus, while the Select Bibliography incorporates the major collections and 
the works of a universal character dealing with numerous churches and vari¬ 
ous movements, the footnotes are devoted to the sources of special topics 
within the framework of each church. 

Hitherto, literature on the Eastern churches could be classified under two 
categories. The first comprises the Roman Catholic authors, usually men of 
great learning and erudition who viewed the East from the narrow angle of 
their own profession with sectarian vehemence and considerable lack of under¬ 
standing. Works of scholars such as Adrien Fortescue, Raymond Janin and 
Donald Attwater, have continuously come in for due appraisal in the course 
of our discussions. The second category consists of a group of well-meaning 
and sympathetic Protestant writers who, nevertheless, failed to come to grips 
with the essence of Eastern Christian primitivism. Among the older members 
of this class are J. M. Neale, Mrs E. L. Butcher, O. H. Parry, J. W. Etheridge, 
G. P. Badger and many others whose names appear in the relevant sections 
of this study. Outside those categories, a small school of modern thought has 
been growing slowly around the names of some church historians such as 
A. P. Stanley, W. F. Adeney and B. J. Kidd. It is noteworthy, however, that 
all of them have treated both the Greek and the non-Greek family of churches 
in the same volumes, and invariably the space allotted to the latter was in¬ 
significant. Thus in spite of the scholarly qualities of their attempts, their 
works have remained as a whole inadequate. 

It is hoped that this volume may help in filling that lacuna in Eastern church 
history. As will be seen, a meticulous effort has been made to abide by the 
canons of historical research through the use of as many original documents 
as might be expected in a work of general character. The fruit of research 
accomplished by numerous scholars in many fields has been utilized to the 
full. However, the events here put forward, have been viewed from a some¬ 
what different angle. It must be stated that I, a historian by vocation, am also 
a member of the Coptic Church by birth and upbringing. Consequently, the 
reader may be able to sense the deeper feeling with which the work is written 
from within the fold of the Churches of the East. As a matter of fact, I 
allowed myself to be persuaded into shouldering this arduous task, partly as a 
modest work of scholarship, and partly as an act of faith. 

My notes bear sufficient testimony of my debt to the innumerable Eastern 
and Western authors whose monographs have enriched our library. Without 

xiv • PREFACE 

these, it would have been impossible for me to complete my assignment. A 
preface is no place for a parade of such names. Reference is made to those 
innumerable monographs of masters, old and new. 

Though conscious of the controversial character of some of my arguments, 
I have decided not to relinquish even the most provocative amongst them so 
long as they have any foundation in available source material. My sole ambi¬ 
tion has been to establish a base from which others can take over with some 
measure of confidence. In sum, if this work proves to be a modest counter¬ 
weight to the galaxy of standard manuals of the history of Western Christi¬ 
anity, I shall be more than rewarded. At any rate, an attempt is here offered 
in prayerful hope that future generations of interested scholars may carry the 
torch until the whole truth and wisdom of the great fathers of the faith are 
fully revealed to all congregations throughout the world. 

A. s. ATIYA 


I The Early Christian World P a & 2 

II Christian Egypt 4 

III Ethiopia 5 

IV Eastern Christian Communities 6 

V Missionary Enterprises: Copts, Nestorians 7 

VI Malabarese Church 8 

VII Nubian Christianity 9 



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The place of the Copts in the general history of Christianity has long been 
minimized, sometimes even forgotten, because the Coptic people themselves 
had voluntarily chosen to live in oblivion. After having led the way for 
centuries, they decided to segregate themselves from the growing ecclesiasti¬ 
cal authority of the West in order to guard their way of worship and to retain 
their national pride. The beginning of this unfortunate chapter in Christian 
separatism took place at the (Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 a.d. 
The details of the Chalcedonian polemic will be treated later in these pages. 
It is sufficient to note here that by repudiating the Romano-Byzantine 
Christology and all the other political factors at play behind the Council’s 
decisions, the Copts became acrimoniously self-centred in their own religious 
nationalism. Then with the advent of the Arab in the seventh century, the 
whole of Egypt began to turn its face altogether from the West to the East; 
and the progress of the new religion of Islam in the Middle East gradually 
dwarfed the Eastern Christian communities. Thus the world increasingly for¬ 
got their original role in the development of the Christian faith in its formative 
years. 1 

This was the situation until the rediscovery of the ancient Eastern Christ¬ 
ians in the course of the nineteenth century. Unlike the Nestorians and the 
Indian Christians of St Thomas, the Copts w^ere not completely lost to the 
external world. Like the Jacobites and the Armenians, they were mentioned 
in the works of mediaeval European travellers in the Middle East. But they 
w*ere not as well-known as the Maronites, who were in direct contact with 
Rome during the age of the Crusades. On the other hand, the Copts were 
regarded as an insignificant minority of schismatic monophysites, a lingering 
shadow from the remote past. Indeed, it was only lately that Western scholar¬ 
ship was attracted by the Coptic Christian heritage and consequently inaugur¬ 
ated a systematic enquiry into the vast and rich world of Coptic sources. The 

1 For bibliographical reference, see W. Kammerer (with the collaboration of Elinor M. 
Husselman and Louise A. Shier), A Coptic Bibliography (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1950); J. 
Simon, Bibliographic Coptc , Oricntalia, 18-26 (1941-56); G. Graf, Geschichte der christlichcn 
arabischen lJteratur , 5 vols. (Vatican City, 1944-53) csp. Vol. IT, pp. 294-475; and A 
Bibliographical Guide to the History of Christianity , cd. S. J. Case (Chicago, 1931). 



results have been bewildering and revealing, though we still have only a bare 
outline of Coptic history. The real significance of Alexandrine Christianity is 
only just dawning. 

Three schools of thought have evolved from this steady increase in the 
awareness of Coptic sources. The first is the Protestant school, 1 sympathetic 
authors who wrote about the Coptic church with great affection but limited 
understanding. The second consists of Roman Catholic scholars 2 whose atti¬ 
tude has invariably been hostile to, and at best unappreciative of, the so-called 
‘dissident’ Copts. The third is a more modest school of native writers 3 side 
by side with a number of Western scholars concerned with dispassionate 
research based on original sources. 4 On the whole, it may be said at this 

1 J. M. Neale, A History of the Holy Has tern Church: General Introduction, 2 vols. (London, 

1896) ; ibid., Patriarchate of Alexandria , 2 vols. (London, 1897); E. L. Butcher, The Story 
of the Church of Egypt, 2 vols. (London, 1897); M. Fowler, Christian Egypt - Past, Present 
and Future (London, 1901); and S. H. Leeder, Modern Sons of the Pharoahs (London, 1918). 

2 J. M. Vansleb, Histoire de Veglise d' Alexandria (Paris, 1677); E. Renaudot, Historia 
patriarcharum Alexandrinorum jacobitarmn (Paris, 1713); M. Lequien, ‘Patriarchate of 
Alexandria’, in Oriens Christianas , Vol. II (Paris, 1740), 329-666; S. Chauleur, Histoire des 
Coptes (Paris, i960). 

See also the more comprehensive works by R. Janin, Ees Eglises orientales et les Kites 
orientaux , 3rd ed. (Paris, 1935); A. Fortescue, The Lesser Eastern Churches (London, 1913); 
D. Attwater, The Dissident Eastern Churches (Milwaukie, Wise. 1935); ibid.. The Christian 
Churches of the East, 2 vols. (Milwaukie, Wise., 1947-9). 

3 Essentially in Arabic, see Tewfik Iscarous, Nawabigh al-Aqbat wa-Mashahiruhum fi 
al-Qarn al-Ishrin (Biographies of Famous Copts in the 19th Century), 2 vols. (Cairo, 
1910-13); Yusuf Minqarius, Tarikh al- Umma al-Qibtiya (History of the Coptic Nation, in 
the Years 1893-1912), (Cairo, 1913); Ramzy Tadros, Al-Aqbdt fi al-Qarn al-Ishrin (The 
Copts in the 20th Century), 5 vols. (Cairo 1910 ff.); Ya'qub Nakhla Rufaila, Kitab Tarikh 
al-Umma al-Qibtiya (History of the Coptic Nation), (Cairo, 1898); Tarikh al-Batdrikah, 
anonymous History of the Patriarchs by a monk of the Monastery of Baramous, (Cairo, 

1897) ; Bishop Isodoros, Al-Kharridah al-Nafisah fi Tarikh al-Kanisah (History of the 
Church), 2 vols. (Cairo, 1923; 2nd. ed., 2 vols., Cairo, 1964); Tarikh al-Umma al-Qibtiya 
(Summary of the History of Christianity in Egypt), by Lajnat al-Tarikh al-Qibti (Com¬ 
mission of Coptic History), 3rd ed. (Cairo, 1925); Jacques Tagher, Aqbat wa-Muslimun 
mundh al-Fath al- Arabi ild 'Am 1922 (Copts and Muslims from the Arab Conquest to 1922) 
(Cairo, 1951); Iris Habib al-Masry, Qissat al-Kanisah al-Qibtiyah (Story of the Coptic 
Church, to 435 a.d.), (Cairo, n.d.); Zaki Shenuda, Tarikh al-Aqbat (History of the 
Copts), Vol. I (Cairo 1962). 

4 E. Amelincau, Etude sur le christianisme en Egypte au septieme siecle (Paris, 1887); A. Mac- 
aire, Histoire de Veglise d'Alexandrie depuis Saint Marc jusqu'a nos jours (Cairo, 1894); J. 
Maspero, Histoire des patriarches d' Alexandrie depuis la mort de Vempereur Anastase jusqu'a 
la reconciliation des eglises jacobites (518-616) (Paris, 1923); A. Heckel, Die Kirche vonAgypten, 
ihre Amfange, ihre Organisation und ihre Entwicklung bis gur Zeit des Nicdnum (Strassburg, 
1918); R. Strothmann, Die koptische Kirche in der Neugeit (Tubingen, 1932); W. L. Wester- 
mann et al., Coptic Egypt (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1944); W. H. Worrell, A Short Account of the 
Copts (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1945); E. R. Hardy, Christian Egypt, Church and People (New 
York, 1952); Maria Cramer, Das christlich-koptische Agypten, Einst und Heute, Eine Orienti- 
erung (Wiesbaden, 1959); E. Wakin, A Lonely Minority, The Modern History of Egypt's Copts: 
The Challenge of Survival for Four Million Christians (New York, 1963). 

See also chapters on Copts in general works on Eastern Churches cited in Selected 


juncture that the definitive and comprehensive history of the Coptic church 
is still pending. Its source material 1 is only partly published, and Coptic 
archaeological research is in its infancy. The field of ‘Coptology’ has long been 
in a state of abeyance in relation to those of ‘Egyptology’ and Tslamology’. 
Though a central link of the highest importance between the ancient and the 
Islamic stages in Egyptian civilization, Coptism has undoubtedly suffered 
between those two monolithic structures, and considerable effort is needed 
to rectify the picture of the place of the Copts both in Egyptian history and 
in Christian annals. 2 

In the light of recent discoveries, the feeling prevails that many facets of 
the general history of Christianity will have to be rewritten in order to in¬ 
corporate the monumental and sometimes turbulent contributions of the 
Copts. Substantial sections of the patristic studies must be amended or even 
recast, while the story of church relations and of the early missionary enter¬ 
prise must be reconsidered. The outstanding role of the Copts in the Cate¬ 
chetical School of Alexandria and the development of the Monastic Rule, 
although not unknown, must be subjected to a fresh appraisal. Our know¬ 
ledge of Coptic biblical literature, both canonical and apocryphal, together 
with so much of the so-called heretical documents of earliest Christianity, is 
still very limited. Coptic art and architecture have attracted much attention 
and interest in recent years, but the last word in these domains is still unsaid. 

It is my task to introduce all this and many other phases of Coptic history 
with the inevitable passion of one who writes from within the Coptic world 
and yet who must view events dispassionately with the mind of a historian 
from outside. 

Bibliography and including Adency, Kidd, Rondot and Spulcr. References to works 
mentioned in Bibliography will be limited to names of authors. 

1 Por further sources on the Copts consult bibliographies cited in above notes as well 
as bibliographies of the aforementioned works. See also major collections such as the 
three Patrologies (Greca, Latina and Orientalis), the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum 
Orientalium (Scriptores Coptici), the collection of the Antc-Niccne Fathers, the library 
of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (esp. the 2nd scries), and the library of Christian 
Classics (esp. first 4 vols.). The publications of the Society of Coptic Archeology in Cairo 
contain valuable additions which are growing in quantity and quality. 

2 Other monographs and articles include A. S. Atiya, ‘Al-Kanisah al-Qibtiyah wal-Ruh 
al-Qauml fl Alisr fi al- Asr al-Byzanti’ (i he Coptic Church and Nationalism in Byzantine 
Egypt), Bulletin of the Egyptian Historical Association, Ill, 1 (1950), pp. 1-14; Francis al-Ttr, 
Al-Ummah al-Qibtiyah wa Kanisatuha al-Orihodoxiyah (The Coptic Nation and its Orthodox 
Church), (Cairo, 1953); Hilmi Guirguis, Al-Aqhdt (The Copts), (Cairo, 1956); S. Chauleur, 
Les Coptes (Alexandria, 1949); J- Murtagh, The Copts (Cairo, 1949); A. de Vlieger, The 
Origin and Early History of the Coptic Church (Lausanne, 1900); Ibrahim Noshy, The Coptic 
Church , Christianity in Egypt (W ashington, D.C., 1955). See also articles on Copts and on 
Egypt in the various encyclopedias cited in the Bibliography as well as Gaston Wiet’s 
article ‘Qibt’ in the Encyclopedia of Islam. 


The Term ‘Copt’ 

The words Copt and Egyptian are identical in meaning, and both are deriva¬ 
tives from Greek ‘ aigyptos ’, which the Hellenes used for both Egypt and the 
Nile. This in turn was a phonetic corruption of the ancient Egyptian for 
Memphis, which was Hak-ka-Ptab, that is, the house or temple of the spirit 
of Ptah, who was one of the most highly revered deities in Egyptian myth¬ 
ology. He was the god of all creation, to be worshipped before all others in 
Memphis. With the suppression of the prefix and the suffix of the Greek word, 
the stem g/pt has remained to give us in all European languages the modern 
words ‘Egypt’ and ‘Copt’, in Arabic Oibt or Gjbt 1 with numerous minor 

Other traditions state that the word is derived mainly according to Arabic 
and Semitic sources, from ‘Kuftaim’ son of Mizraim, a grandchild of Noah 
who first settled in the Nile valley and imparted his name to the old town ol 
‘Quft’ or ‘Guff in the neighbourhood of Thebes, ancient capital of Egypt. 
The Arabs called Egypt ‘dar al-Qibt’, home of the Copts, and since the original 
natives of the land were Christians, the words Coptic and Christian became 
interchangeable in the Arab mind. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that 
the original connotation of Copt is not religious, and that Coptic should be 
considered as being strictly synonymous with Egyptian, and the Coptic 
Church should therefore be defined as merely the Egyptian Church. 

Ethnically, the Copts are neither Semitic nor Hamitic, but rather Mediter¬ 
ranean. They have been described as the direct descendents of the ancient 
Egyptians 2 and some attempts have been made to prove their similarity to 
those distant dwellers on the Nile. Whatever the truth may be, it is clear that 
their religion kept them from mixing with the successive waves of invaders 
from other faiths. Hence their purity of race is not sheer legend. To tne Copt, 
religion proved to be the cementing factor of the community, and orthodoxy 
was as much a way of life as a mode of worship. Habitually the Copts kept 
together in the same villages or the same quarters of the larger towns down 
to the end of the eighteenth century. With the dawn of modern democracy 
in the Middle East during the last century then came the movement of en¬ 
franchisement which rendered segregation meaningless. In our day, the Copts 
live everywhere side by side with their Muslim neighbours without discrimi- 

1 Original Coptic pronunciation is ‘Keft’ or ‘Keptoh It was sacked by Diocletian in 
the third century, fell to the Persians about 715, anc l became a centre of commerce with 
Arabia under Muslim rule. Quft revolted against Arab rule under Saladin, who crushed 
the rebels by massacring three thousand people. Consequently it began to dwindle, and 
Qus replaced it in importance. See E. Amelineau, La Geographic de l Lgypte a l epoque copte 

(Paris, 1893), pp. 213-15. 

2 Sec Modern Sons of the Pharaohs. 


nation, either political or racial; they enjoy their religious freedom, and their 
churches increase throughout Egypt. In sum, the Copts have survived as a 
religious entity, otherwise completely integrated within the body politic of 
the Egyptian nation, sharing the privileges and responsibilities of all citizens 
irrespective of faith or creed. 

Coptic Language 

To this day, the Copts, who are Arabic speaking, have retained the use of the 
Coptic language in their churches. Coptic is the last phase in the evolution of 
the language of the ancient Egyptians. The earlier phases are represented in 
the hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic scripts. The first was the sacred form 
used on temple walls, in tombs and on papyri with representations from the 
Book of the Dead. The second was a less formal and relatively more simplified 
script employed by the priests in the redaction of official and royal documents, 
though it was later reserved almost solely for the liturgies. As time passed 
both these forms became so difficult that the common man became unable to 
correlate their phonetics with his own. Hence arose the third demotic phase, 
a much less pictographic form than its two predecessors, but still too complex 
and inaccessible to the growing needs of daily life. With the coming of the 
Greeks and the introduction and spread of Christianity in Egypt, demotic 1 
was found inadequate for the reproduction of the Christian Scriptures, and 
thus Egyptian scholars and scribes started a new system of transliterating 
purely Egyptian texts in the Greek alphabet. They soon realized that that 
alphabet could not cope with all the native sounds, and solved the problem 
by means of adopting the last seven additional letters of the Coptic alphabet 
from their own original demotic script. 

The Coptic language may therefore be defined as the late Egyptian ver¬ 
nacular inscribed or transliterated in the Greek alphabet, to which are juxta¬ 
posed seven additional characters from demotic. It is very difficult to fix a 
precise date for the emergence of this new system. It must have been a rather 
long and gradual process before its final systematization. Illustrating this 
phenomenon, it may be interesting to note that the first known Egyptian 
document to be transliterated into Greek characters w r as written a century and 
a half before Christ. 2 Though we cannot generalize on the basis of such 

1 H. I. Bell, Egypt from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest (Oxford, 1948), pp. 

2 Discovered by the eminent Egyptologist F. L. Griffith and cited by Wahib 'Atalla 
Girgis (now Father Bakhom - i.e. Pachomius - of the Muharraq Monastery of Our Lady 
near Asiut in Upper Egypt), ‘The Copts’, in Alfred Nawrath, Egypt , The Land between 
Sand and Nile (Bern, 1962), p. 132. 


isolated instances as this one, it can be regarded as indicative of future prac¬ 
tices. In the course of the latter half of the second century a.d., and with the 
steady progress of Christianity in Egypt, it may be assumed that Coptic was 
invariably used alongside demotic, which it was destined to replace altogether. 
The priests of Isis were probably the last remnant of the old order to use the 
demotic script in their graffiti of Philas as late as 45 2 a.d., though it had long 
been dying out of public usage elsewhere. 

It is interesting to note that the Coptic language reflected the old Egyptian 
local dialects. Consequently, we can distinguish in Coptic the following dia¬ 
lects: Bohairic or Lower Egyptian, Sahidic or Upper Egyptian, Faiyumic, 
Akhmimic and Bashmuric. Sometimes these overlap to give birth to even 
more localized forms such as the Sub-Akhmimic. The dialect used in the 
present-day Church liturgies is the Bohairic, which presumably antedates all 
others, since Lower Egypt appears to have been susceptible to Greek in¬ 
fluences earlier than Upper Egypt, owing to its proximity to Alexandria and 
Naucratis, both staunch strongholds of Greek culture. 

It is possible that by the end of the second and the beginning of the third 
century most of the books of the Bible had been rendered into Coptic. I he 
oldest Biblical codex hitherto discovered contains extensive portions of the 
Epistles of St Paul 1 in Coptic on papyrus and estimated to have been written 
around 200 a.d. In fact, immense treasures have been found in Coptic between 
the second and fifth centuries, essentially, though not exclusively, Biblical and 
religious in charater. 

Coptic survived the shock of the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh 
century and necessarily continued to be the official language in state affairs 
and book-keeping used by the native functionaries employed by the un¬ 
lettered Arab rulers. In 706 the Umayyad Viceroy r Abd-Allah ibn f Abd-al- 
Malik issued the hazardous and untimely decree substituting Arabic for 
Coptic in all state affairs. 2 Though his injunction could not be carried out in 
practice, it proved to be an incentive for the native scribe to learn the language 
of the conqueror, and this resulted in the appearance of many bilingual docu¬ 
ments in subsequent centuries. 

In those tempestuous times of changing Muhammadan dynasties, Coptic 
persisted as a spoken and liturgical language until approximately the thirteenth 
century which was marked by the emergence of native scholars who com- 

1 J. Finegan, Light from the A.ncient Vast (Princeton, 195 0 , pp. 33 2 et scc b Eighty-six 
leaves of this codex survive, of which 53 are in the Chester Beatty Collection and 30 in 
the library of the University of Michigan. This was part of some eleven papyrus codices 
dating from the second to the fourth cent, and comprising nine Old Testament and fifteen 
New Testament books together with the Book of Enoch and a homily by Melito of 
Sardis. They constituted what was probably part of an early church collection. 

2 Jacques Tagher, Aqbat u>a-NLuslirnun , pp. 300-8, is a rather indecisiv e but interesting 
account of the fate of Coptic in the Islamic period. 


posed Coptic grammars in Arabic as well as Arabic-Coptic dictionaries to 
help in the preservation of that tongue. Among these were the reputed Aulad 
aUAssal and Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar who flourished under the rule of the 
Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties. Nevertheless, Coptic was steadily pushed 
back into Upper Egypt, and the German traveller Vansleb, 1 who visited 
Egypt first in 1664, asserted that he had then seen the last Copt named 
Anastase who really spoke Coptic. Vansleb’s remark, however, could not 
have been the whole truth, since subsequent travellers indicated that they had 
met Coptic-speaking Copts. 

Is Coptic altogether defunct? This is a debatable question. Apart from the 
use of Coptic in church service, there are still said to be isolated villages in 
Upper Egypt with ‘family tradition about the pronunciation of Coptic’. 2 On 
the other hand, it would be an error to describe Coptic as a living language. 
What is certain is that Coptic has left its mark on the spoken Arabic of Egypt 
in two ways: first, in the residue of a vocabulary that is peculiar to Egyptian 
Arabic; 3 and secondly, in the nature of the grammar of the vernacular which 
the early bilingual Copts carried over with them. Currently, the Sunday School 
movement 4 under Church sponsorship has been active in reintroducing classes 
in Coptic in order to familiarize the Coptic youth with liturgical terminology 
and all manner of rituals derived from Coptic. The response to these efforts 
has exceeded expectation and reduced the incomprehensible formalism of 
Coptic offices. 

1 Also known as J. M. Wanslebcn, whose ‘Ungedrucktc Bcschreibung von Agypten 
in Jahre 1664’ was published in H. E. G. Paulus, Sammlung der merkrvurdigsten Reisen in 
dem Orient (Jena, 1792-1803), Vol. Ill, pp. 1-122. Apparently Vansleb returned to Egypt 
and wrote a new account which was translated into other languages, of which English is 
one: The Present State of Egypt, or, A New Relation of a Late Voyage into that Kingdom, per¬ 
formed in the years 1672 and 1677, tr. M.D. (London, 1678). Vansleb also wrote the afore¬ 
mentioned early history of the Copts entitled: Histoire de Teglise d'Alexandrie fondee par 
S. Marc, que nous appelons celle des Jacobites-Copies d'figypte, tier it es au Caire me me en 1672 et 
1677 (Paris, 1677). 

2 W. H. Worrell, Short Account of the Copts, p. 51; idem, ‘Popular Traditions of the 
Coptic Language’, in American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, No. 54 (1937), 
pp. 1—11; this is a synopsis of material collected by Werner Vycichl in Zeniya and other 
Coptic communities. 

3 G. P. Sobhy, ‘The Survival of Ancient Egypt’, in bulletin of the Society of Coptic 
Archeology, No. 4 (1938), pp. 59-70. 

4 The Coptic Sunday Schools at Giza have already published a scries of three brochures 
in Coptic and Arabic entitled Al-Juqus al-Qibtiya (Coptic Rites). These are anonymous, 
though special mention is made that the texts were revised by the late Yassa r Abd-al- 
Massih, former librarian of the Coptic Museum and perhaps the most learned Egyptian 
in the Coptic language in recent years. 

H E C—B 


Ancient Egyptian Religion 

From the earliest times the Egyptian is known to have been religiously minded 
by nature and upbringing. His profound reverence toward the deities of 
ancient mythology is matched only by his devotion to the faiths of Christian¬ 
ity and Islam in subsequent ages. In fact, his religious curiosity led to the 
revelation of many things which seemed to have a bearing on all faiths. This 
can be very clearly seen in the transition between his old pagan beliefs and 
Christianity. His familiarity with the basic ideas of the old faith prepared his 
mind for the acceptance of the dogma of the other without tremendous diffi¬ 
culty or spiritual anguish. Let us tabulate some of the major parallelisms 
between the old and the new which paved the way to a speedy spread of the 
teachings of Christ in Egypt. 

First, the idea of the oneness of godhead was not novel to the mind of the 
Egyptian who lived through the great Unitarian revolution of King Ikhnaton 
(1383-1365 b.c.) in the eighteenth dynasty. This was of course a distant event 
yet it constituted a stage in religious thought. The divinity and humanity of 
Jesus had their equivalent in the person of Osiris, who was both god and 
man. In reality, all pharaohs were deified humans. 

The conception of the Trinity in the new faith must have seemed to the 
Egyptian a mere duplication of his own triads. Practically every important 
town in ancient Egypt possessed some kind of a triad of its own. The most 
famous of all was of course the triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus. The resurrec¬ 
tion of Osiris was similar to the rise of Jesus after his Passion and entomb¬ 
ment. Isis and Homs also recalled the position of the Mother and Child. In 
fact, the early representation of a Coptic Madonna is a true reproduction of 
Isis suckling the baby Horus. This became an established feature in Coptic 

The story of the Annunciation, the Holy Ghost and the miraculous birth 
of Jesus from the Virgin Mary was not new to the Egyptian mind. A virgin 
cow in whom Ptah, the god of creation had breathed his holy spirit gave 
birth to the god Apis. Other instances are also known for example the story 
that the last Egyptian pharaoh, Horemheb was conceived by the spirit of the 
god Amon and born of a virgin. 

The question of life after death, which is an integral part of Christian teach¬ 
ing, was the kernel of Egyptian thought and indeed a vital factor in the 
development of Egyptian civilization. To the ancient Egyptian, resurrection 
was a physical process whereby the spirit of the dead (Ka) would return to 
reside in the body of its semblance. To achieve eternity, therefore, the Egyp¬ 
tians strove to preserve their bodies intact and invented the art of embalming, 
perfecting it to a degree unknown either before or after them. Should the 


mummy for some unforeseen and untoward circumstance be marred or dis¬ 
appear, a substitute of the likeness of the deceased had to be found and 
identified by the Ka in order to occupy it. On this account, the Egyptians 
perfected the arts of painting and sculpture. They also excelled in funerary 
architecture, pyramids, tombs and temples of great magnificence and solidity 
built to stand the ravages of time. 

Furthermore, the Egyptians seem to have identified the Cross with their 
own sign of life eternal, the ‘Ankh’ which only the immortals such as gods and 
pharaohs held in their hands on all monuments and in records. The Ankh 
sign was cruciform with a rounded top which the Christians readily adopted 
from the earliest times, and reproduced on all manner of engravings, paint¬ 
ings, carvings, illuminations, wall decorations, objects in clay such as lamps, 
and even in polychrome and monochrome textiles. 1 For Christianity as a 
whole the Cross became the true symbol of the new religion only from the 
time of Constantine the Great, after his famous vision on the eve of battle. 
But it is almost certain that the Copts had used the sign of life as their Chris¬ 
tian symbol at a much earlier date. 


Of iconographic interest, too, was the identification of Horus and his 
struggle against the god of evil, Seth, with St George and the Dragon. 2 The 
scene was reproduced in stone carving, painting and woven material. 

To spread the new faith through song, St Menas, the third-to-fourth- 
century saint and martyr, substituted the persons of the Trinity for those of 
an old triad in some of the most popular hymns in Egyptian mythology and 
folklore, thereby adapting the old familiar tunes to a new purpose. 

The decay and corruption of the old mythology in the late Egyptian period 
together with the growth of superstition and mystical occult contributed no 
mean share to the waning of the ancient Egyptian religion. The coming of 
the Greeks into Egypt had a curious impact on Egyptian religion. In an effort 
to unify the East and West under their hegemony, the Ptolemies attempted 
to recast the old religion into a common model acceptable to both Greek and 
Egyptian. This led to a process of syncretism which complicated a number 
of vital issues for both sides. The most striking instance was the creation of a 
new universal deity in Serapis, who was an anthropomorphic representation 
of Osiris and Apis, and at the same time somehow identified with, or related 
to, the Greek gods Zeus and Pluto. Between the Plellenized Egyptian and 

1 Maria Cramer has collected the most extensive variety of the Ankh sign in the early 
Coptic period; see her Das altagyptiscbe Lebens^eicben in cbristlicben-Koptischen A gyp ten — 
Dine kultur-und religionsgescbicbtlicbe Studie anf arcbaologiscber Grundlage (Wiesbaden, 1955). 
Another interesting selection from the western oases where Christianity struck root in 
the early centuries is presented in Ahmad Fakhry, Tbe Necropolis of El-Bagawat in Kbarga 
Oasis (Cairo, 1951), pp. 36-7. 

2 P. D. Scott-MoncricfT, Paganism and Christianity in Egypt (Cambridge, Eng., t 913), 
pp. 137-40. 


the Orientalized Greek, the native mind wandered and wondered where to 
find the true faith. 

Combined with these religious upheavals was the ensuing hopelessness and 
dire poverty of the Egyptian under Roman rule, when he became a mere tool 
in the granary of Rome. 1 Life was aimless and dull. Only future comfort and 
spiritual solace in the next world remained, and this Christianity amply 
promised. Thus, the stage was set for Christianity, which spread like lire 
throughout the valley of the Nile. 

Flight of the Holy Family 

The Copts today cherish the memory of the flight of the Holy Family 2 from 
its persecutors in Palestine to safe refuge in the land of Egypt. Indeed they 
take pride in that event, which their writers have commemorated on every 
possible occasion. In a Coptic doxology for the Feast of the Entry of Our 
Lord into the land of Egypt, read on the twenty-fourth day of the Coptic 
month of Bashons, the faithful express their gladness in these words: ‘Be glad 
and rejoice, O Egypt, and her sons and all her borders, for there hath come 
to Thee the Lover of man. He who is before the ages.’ 3 

The appeal which the advent of the Lord to the banks of the Nile had for 
the imagination of the Egyptian Christian became evident in Coptic literature. 
The episode appeared in the early translations of the apocryphal Gospels and 
Coptic Synaxarium. The historic moral of the event could well have been the 
attraction of more converts to the new faith in the formative years of the 
primitive church. 

It would be interesting to pursue the romantic progress of the Holy Family 

1 Bell, pp. 65-100; J. G. Milne, Egypt under Roman Ride, 3rd edn. (London, 1924), pp. 
151 et seq., 226-7; W. L. Westermann, ‘On the Background of Coptism’, in Coptic Egypt 
(Brooklyn, N.Y., 1944), pp. 7-19. More special readings in M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and 
Economic History of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1926); P. Jouguet, Ea domination romaine 
en Egypte aux deux premiers siecles apres Jesus-Christ (Alexandria, 1947); H. I. Bell, ‘Roman 
Egypt from Augustus to Diocletian’, in Chronique d'Egypte , XIII (1938), 347-63; S. L. 
Wallace, Taxation in Egypt fro??t Augustus to Diocletian (Princeton, 1938); J. G. Milne, 
‘The Ruin of Egypt by Roman Mismanagement’, in Journal of Roman Studies , XVII (1927), 

I_1 3 - 

2 The story of this flight appears in practically every history of the Copts. But the best 
single study is by O. E. A. Meinardus, In the Steps of the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Upper 
Egypt (Cairo, 1963), which uses the apocryphal Gospels of Pseudo-Matthew and St 
Thomas as well as several other Infancy gospels in Arabic and Armenian. A touristic 
manual has recently been published on the subject by Samir William Farid, The Flight 
into Egypt (Cairo, 1965). 

3 Meinardus, p. 15, quotes the original text in Coptic and offers the English translation 
quoted here. 


from Bethlehem to the furthest point of their itinerary in Upper Egypt. It is 
possible that Our Lady, with the Infant Jesus in her arms, travelled riding an 
ass while Joseph walked by the side. The sight is not unfamiliar to those 
acquainted with the countries of the Middle East even in our day. The group 
must have crossed the Sinai Peninsula by the northern caravan route along¬ 
side the Mediterranean littoral from Gaza to Raphia (the Arab Rafah) and 
then forded the insignificant frontier brook known as the ‘River of Egypt’ 
and come to Rhinocolura, 1 the present al- c Ar!sh, where the Romans exiled 
criminals and cut off their noses. From there they went to Ostrakini, later the 
seat of a Christian Bishop Abraham, who participated in the GEcumenical 
Council of Ephesus in 431 a.d. Their last station in Sinai was Pelusium, the 
modern al-Farama (from the Coptic ‘Pheromi’), regarded as the Eastern key 
city to Egypt. This was the route followed by the Persians in the sixth century 
b.c. and later by the Arabs in the seventh century a.d. 

Although the course of the flight after that point is drowned in apocryphal 
tales of wonder and miracle, one may deduce that the refugees probably 
pursued the same beaten path of both Persian and Arab to the interior of 
Egypt. The traditional stations of their progress seem to confirm this assump¬ 
tion. The historic interest of pilgrims and travellers of all ages in this subject 
offers sufficient justification for an enumeration of those stations. 

Having crossed the isthmus of Suez below Lake Manzaleh, the group must 
have passed by the city of Bubastis, the twenty-second dynasty capital of 
Egypt which Herodotus had visited in the fifth century b.c., on the way to 
Bilbais in the southern region of the Sharqiya (i.e. eastern) province. This 
was recognized as the first station where the Family took shelter under a tree 
which is said to have survived until 1850. The second and better-known 
station, long frequented by medieval pilgrims and modern tourists, is the 
village of Matariya where the group rested beneath a sycamore tree in the 
neighbourhood of an eighteenth dynasty obelisk still standing on the same 
spot. According to tradition, that sycamore tree has been preserved by pious 
generations, possibly through transplanting, until our own time, and the 
existing one could be traced to the year 1672. 2 Under the weight of great age, 
it collapsed in 1906, though green shoots still keep sprouting from its vener¬ 
able branches. 

The third station is commemorated by the Copts in the Church of the 
Blessed Virgin and a nunnery at Haret Zwayla in Cairo. But the most attrac¬ 
tive landmark on the way further south is probably the cave or perhaps a 
small subterranean temple within the precincts of Babylon where the Family 
sojourned for a little time. Over this fourth station, the Copts constructed 

1 The identification with the Coptic Ritiocouroura is accepted on sufferance by Amelineau, 
Geographic , p. 404. 

2 Meinardus, p. 35; on Matariya, see Amelineau, Geographic , pp. 246-7. 


the fourth-century church of Abu Sarga (St Sergius), while the underground 
structure was carefully preserved as a special chapel with an altar and a wall 
niche where the infant Jesus was probably laid to rest. 

Afterwards the stations of the Holy Family included a Jewish temple on 
the Nile south of Old Cairo where the Copts again built another of Our 
Lady’s churches at Ma f adi. The present structure with its attractive triple 
granary domes is known to date from the thirteenth century. It was here that 
the travellers crossed the Nile and penetrated Upper Egypt as far as Meir and 
Qusiya in the province of Asiut. Again they hid in a cave for approximately 
six months, and it was on that site that the pious natives later established Our 
Lady’s Monastery, popularly known as Dair al-Muharraq and enriched beyond 
all other Pachomian monasteries in Egypt by the offerings of an endless stream 
of pilgrims until the present. One early Muslim writer, namely Muhammad 
al-Baqir 1 (676-731) recorded the passage of the Family through Dair al-Ganus 
and al-Bahnasa in Middle Egypt and embellished his story by the reiteration 
of miracles that were current in the century of the Arab conquest of Egypt. 

It is difficult to unravel the legend from the reality and the orthodox from 
the apocryphal in the romantic accounts of the flight into Egypt. But the 
Coptic susceptibility to local tradition has survived with the blessings of the 
hierarchy. Egypt has always abounded in wondrous tales of piety and miracles, 
but nothing equals the veneration which the earnest and simple believers 
entertain in the steps of the Holy Family. 

The length of their sojourn in Egypt is unknown and not easy to define 
with precision. It is true that Herod, the instigator of the massacre of the 
innocents, appears to have died in the same year as that of the birth of Jesus, 
and the Holy Family could not have found it necessary to prolong their refuge 
abroad. On the other hand, we must bear in mind the atrocious conditions 
of travel in those times, as well as the extent of their journeyings, which must 
have lasted a considerable period. Moreover, the Infancy Gospel of St Thomas 
quotes the miracle of a revived dead fish as having occurred while Jesus was a 
boy of three. It is not, therefore, inconceivable that they retraced their steps 
to Nazareth in Palestine after that age. The flight of the Holy Family con¬ 
tinued to appeal to the imagination of later preachers of Christianity and 
helped to spread the new faith in Egypt. 

1 Meinardus, pp. 41-3. 


St Mark the Founder 

The Copts pride themselves on the apostolicity of their national church, whose 
founder was none other than St Mark, one of the four Evangelists and the 
author of the oldest canonical Gospel used by both St Matthew and St Luke, 
probably also by St John. John Mark is regarded by the Coptic hierarchy as 
the first in their unbroken chain of 116 patriarchs. He is also the first of a 
stream of Egyptian saints and glorious martyrs. The History of the Patriarchs 
of the Coptic Church of Alexandria f compiled in Arabic from ancient Coptic 
sources and continued by Sawiris (Severus) ibn al-Muqaffa r , bishop of al- 
Ashmunain in Middle Egypt, begins with an elaborate biography of the Evan¬ 
gelist and first patriarch. 

St Mark’s parents were both Jews who had resided in Cyrenaica until they 
were attacked and their landed property raided by the Berber tribes. Con¬ 
sequently, they decided to move to Jerusalem, where their son was probably 
born shortly after the Nativity of Jesus. Apparently he was given a good 
education and became conversant with both Greek and Latin in addition to 
Hebrew. Llis family was extremely religious, and he reflected the spiritual 
fervour of his day. He received his Christian initiation from his older cousin 
St Barnabas; but he also knew St Peter and St Paul well. Above all, he soon 
became associated with Jesus, who frequented his home more than once and 

1 Kitab Siyar al-Aba’ al-Batarika, Arabic text first ed. by C. F. Scybold, Severus Ben 
El-Moqaffa f , ‘Historia Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum’, in Corpus Scriptorum Cbristianorum 
Orientalium , Scriptores Arabici , Scries Tertia, Tomus IX (Beirut and Paris, 1906); Arabic 
text with English tr. begun by B. T. Evetts, ‘History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic 
Church of Alexandria’, in Patrologia Oriental's, 2 vols. in 4 fasc. (Paris, 1907-15), and con¬ 
tinued by Yassa 'Abd-el-Massih, O. E. H. Burmcstcr and Aziz S. Atiya in Publications of 
the Society of Coptic Archeology, 3 parts (Cairo, 1943-59). The last fascicle stops in the year 
1102 a.d. The Seybold edition stops much earlier at 567 a.d. 

For St Mark, see Evetts, I, pp. 37-50. The orthodox Coptic version of St Mark’s 
biography is compiled by Kamil Salih Nakhla, Tarikh al-Qiddis Mar Morqos al-Basbir 
(History of St Mark the Evangelist), (Cairo, 1952). The Catholic view of the saint’s life 
may be found in Paul Cheneau, Les Saints d'Egpte, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1923); for St Mark, 
see I, 494-509. See also J. J. L. Barges, Homelie sur Saint Marc Apotre et Pvangeliste , Texte 
arabe et traduction et notes (Paris, 1952). 

2 5 


chose him as one of the Seventy. Even after Our Lord’s ascension, the Dis¬ 
ciples met at Mark’s home, and it was there that the Holy Ghost descended 
upon them. 1 The room where the monumental event occurred, became the 
first Christian chapel in history. St Mark was therefore one of the closest 
witnesses of Our Lord’s life, and this fitted him most admirably to write his 
basic Gospel. Papias (ca. 60-130), bishop of hlierapolis in Asia Minor, made 
a first-century reference to the Gospel, but he casually ascribed the Marcan 
material to Peter. Internal evidence, however, renders this allusion a highly 
debatable question. 

It is true that Mark, the enlightened and able scholar, interpreted for Peter, 
the simple fisherman, when they were together in Rome. 2 But this does not 
imply that he recorded solely for him, though it is conceivable that all the 
Disciples pooled details of oral information about the Lord’s sayings and acts. 
The Gospel contained eye-witness source material incorporating both Petrine 
and Pauline reports. That St Mark wrote his Gospel in Latin or in Greek or 
in both is probable. St John Chrysostom (ca. 3 47-407) states that it was origin¬ 
ally composed in Egypt in the Greek language. The idea is also advanced that 
it was written only after the martyrdom of both Peter and Paul, but this is 
questionable because the Gospel is said to have appeared twelve years after 
the Crucifixion, that is, in the year 45; and the martyrdom took place in Nero’s 
reign (54-68), possibly in 64 a.d. Whatever the truth, it is certain that St Mark 
brought his Gospel with him to Alexandria; and though the Greek version 
could have fulfilled his purpose in that city, the suggestion is made that another 
version in the Egyptian language was prepared for the benefit of native con¬ 
verts who were not conversant with Greek. 3 

St Mark was indefatigable. He travelled with Paul and his cousin Barnabas 
to Antioch, then returned to Jerusalem, and later accompanied his cousin to 
Cyprus. In Italy and Rome he was close to Peter who styled him lovingly as 
‘my son’. But Mark’s real labour lay in Africa. First, he crossed the Mediter¬ 
ranean to Cyrenaica - the Pentapolis which had been his parents’ residence in 
bygone days. This country was colonized by Greeks and many Jews who 
offered his zeal a ripe and hopeful harvest. After performing many miracles 
and sowing the seeds of his faith, he went to Alexandria by a circuitous route 
through the oases and Babylon, or Old Cairo. Alexandria was the Eastern 
counterpart of Rome both in importance and in being a stronghold of pagan¬ 
ism, and it was imperative that Christianity should win the two. The task was 
as worthy as it was hazardous. 

Here we face the important problem of dates. The History of the Patriarchs 4 

1 Acts xiv, 12. 

2 Cheneau, op. cit., I, 497, describes St Mark as St Peter’s secretary and interpreter for 
evident reasons. 

3 Kamil Salih Nakhla, pp. 86-92. 

4 Fasc. I, 44. 


mentions explicitly that the revelation to Peter and Mark that they should 
advance on Rome and Alexandria came in the fifteenth year after the Ascen¬ 
sion of Christ, that is, 48 a.d. Other sources 1 put his entry into Alexandria 
in 55, 58 and 61 a.d. Whatever the right date of Mark’s appearance in the 
city, the consensus of opinion is that he was martyred in 68 a.d. Between 
those two dates he was able to fulfil his mission and to win many converts. 

The story runs that on entering the city by the eastern gate, he broke the 
strap of his shoe. So he went to a cobbler to mend it. When the cobbler took 
an awl to work on it, he accidentally pierced his hand and cried aloud: ‘Heis 
ho Theos’ (God is one). Mark rejoiced at this utterance and, after miracu¬ 
lously healing the man’s wound, took courage and gave the lesson to the 
hungry ears of his first convert. This happened to be Anianus, Mark’s succes¬ 
sor as the second patriarch of Alexandria. The spark was fired, and the cobbler 
took the Apostle home with him. He and his family were baptized, and many 
others followed. So successful was the movement that the word spread that 
a Galilean was in the city preparing to overthrow the idols. Popular feeling 
began to rise, and men sought him everywhere. Scenting danger, the Apostle 
ordained Anianus bishop, with three priests and seven deacons to watch over 
the congregation in case anything befell him. Afterwards, he seems to have 
undertaken two voyages. First he sallied into Rome where he met Peter and 
Paul, and he left the capital only after their martyrdom in 64 a.d. He then 
stayed at Aquilea, near Venice, before his return to Alexandria. On finding 
his flock firm in the faith, he decided to visit the Pentapolis, where he spent 
two years performing miracles, ordaining bishops and priests, and winning 
more converts. When at last he reached Alexandria, he was overjoyed to find 
that the brethren had so multiplied that they were able to build a considerable 
church in the suburban district of Baucalis, where cattle grazed by the sea¬ 

Spreading rumours that the Christians threatened to overthrow the pagan 
deities infuriated the idolatrous populace. The end was approaching, and the 
saint was unremittingly hunted by the enemy. In the year 68 a.d., Easter fell 
on the same day as the Serapis festival. The furious mob had gathered in the 
Serapion and then descended on the Christians while they were celebrating 
Easter at Baucalis. St Mark was seized, dragged with a rope around his neck 
in the streets, and then incarcerated for the night. In the following morning 
the same ordeal was repeated until he gave up the ghost. His flesh was torn 
and bloody, and it was their intent to cremate his remains. But the wind blew 
and the rain fell in torrents, and the populace dispersed. Thus the Christians 

1 Enumerated by Kamil Salih Nakhla. pp. 57-8. Bishop Isodorus, I, 64-5, adopts 58 
a.d. for the decision to go to Alexandria and the rendering of the Gospel into Greek as 
a preparatory measure, the actual entry into the city being 61 a.d. Iris El-Masry, p. 19, 
quotes the years 55 and 61. 


stealthily carried off his body and secretly buried it in a grave which they had 
carved in the rock under the altar of the church. 

In subsequent centuries the body of St Mark did not remain intact. During 
the later times of schism between the Copts and the Melkites, who were in 
authority, the church where the body was kept remained in the hands of the 
latter. At the time of the Arab storming of Alexandria in 642, that church was 
pillaged and the vestments and the head of the Apostle were stolen. With 
the establishment of peace in the city, that church together with the body 
remained in Melldte hands. But the head somehow was returned to the Arab 
governor, who ceded it to the Coptic Patriarch Benjamin, the only ecclesiasti¬ 
cal leader left after the departure of the Greeks. According to their own story, 
Venetian merchants stole the headless body of St Markin 828. They smuggled 
it in a tub of pickled pork to evade Muslim inspection. In this wise, Venice 
earned its other title of the Republic of St Mark. 1 

Age of Persecution 

Though condoned by the Roman authorities in Alexandria, the martyrdom 
of St Mark was in fact a spontaneous act of violence committed by the enraged 
pagan populace. To the Greek citizens Mark was a hateful Jew, and his new 
and obscure sect was regarded as irreligious, immoral, unpatriotic and dis¬ 
loyal to both society and the state. A Christian was a conspiring rebel against 
time-honoured polytheistic tradition and against the established divinity of 
the imperial dignity. He was something of a nihilist to be nipped in the bud. 
To him all the misfortunes of latter day Rome were ascribed, from famine 
and pestilence to drought and floods. He antagonized the mighty deities, 
broke up families, and corrupted the old Roman virtues and the Greek mind. 
Christianity was generally misunderstood and maligned; and the ranks of the 
people called for its extermination. Thus it can be safely said that the age of 
persecution was, as in Mark’s case, inaugurated by the people, and the state 
became instrumental in the execution. The Neronian theory of the origins of 
the age of persecution cannot be applied to all the subsequent waves of terror¬ 
ization under other emperors. At any rate, during the first century of Christ¬ 
ian history, most emperors appeared to reflect the voice of the people in the 
literal application of the laws by disbanding Christians. Even the saintly 

1 E. M. Forster, Alexandria. - A History and a Guide (Paperback ed.. Garden City, 
N.Y., 1961), pp. 86-7; Kamil Salih Nakhla, pp. no, 114-23. Cheneau, I, 509, explains 
the lifting of St Mark’s body by the Venetians as an attempt to save it from Saracen 
desecration and mentions that the church of Limours near Paris possesses one of his arms 
while Soissons has the head. 


philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (161-80) found the policy of persecution ines¬ 

The community of Alexandrine Christians lay low after Mark and appeared 
to bide its time. It acted without noise or ostentation in order to avoid further 
calamities. The sources are almost silent on the events of the following century. 
In fact, the History of the Patriarchs merely lists the consecration and decease 
of the next ten patriarchs (68-188 a.d.) 1 and provides no details until the reign 
of the twelfth patriarch, Demetrius I (188-230), 2 the contemporary of Origen, 
whose reign witnessed the first state-sponsored persecution of Egyptian 
Christians. Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) 3 decreed that Christian con¬ 
versions must be stopped at all costs, and his edict of 202 to that effect was 
stringently enforced in Egypt without regard to racial differentiation of Greek, 
Jew or Egyptian. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was closed, though 
its members continued to meet elsewhere. The Christians were denied the 
privilege accorded to the Jews of being exempted from the duty of burning 
incense before an imperial statue; and those who refused to comply with this 
sign of allegiance to the emperor were conducted to Alexandria from all parts 
of the country, where a grim fate awaited them. Some martyrs were beheaded, 
others cast to the lions, still others were burnt alive, but all in common were 
subjected to sordid torture regardless of age or sex. Origen lost his father, 
Leonidas, 4 in this massacre, but he himself was saved by his mother, who hid 
his garments to prevent him from facing his accusers. Yet imperial efforts 
proved to be without avail. The number of bishops, once restricted to three, 
had increased to twenty by the end of the reign. 

Then followed a short lull when an indifferent emperor became heedless 
of religious differences, though Christian persecution became invariably the 
accepted official policy of the rulers. The next massive wave of persecution 
touching Egypt in particular occurred in the short reign of Decius (249-51).° 
The emperor was troubled by the menacing pace at which Christianity was 
spreading, and he issued an edict in 250 enjoining every citizen to procure a 
certificate (Jibellns) from his local magistrate testifying that he had offered 
sacrifice and libation to the gods. Those who refused to conform were tortured 
with unprecedented ferocity. Thousands of martyrs perished in many cities 
and villages besides Alexandria. Grief, terror and despair swept all over Egypt. 
The persecution went on unabated under his successor. Valerian (252-60),° 
and some Christians recanted to save their lives. The Patriarch Dionysius 

1 Evetts, I, 51-6. 2 Ibid., 56-75. 

3 Milne, pp. 59-62, 218-19. 

4 Cheneau, I, 483-86. He is cited by Eusebius, Rufinus and Jerome. A short appendix 
(loc. cit., 486-93) on Origen is also provided. 

5 Milne, pp. 69-72, 219; Bell, pp. 86-90; Scott-MoncriefI, pp. 85-199 ff. 

6 P. J. Healy, The Valerian Persecution - A Study of the Relations between Church and State 
in the Third Century a.d. (Boston, 1905). 


(246-64), who had been a fugitive all the time, was constrained for reasons 
of wisdom and expediency to use a more lenient policy than his predecessors 
by readmitting the secessionists on mere evidence of penitence. It was not, 
however, until the year 262 that the Christians began to have a peaceful exist¬ 
ence under Emperor Gallienus (253-68), whose own troubles and the futility 
of a hopeless situation led him to issue an edict of religious tolerance. Perhaps 
for the first time, Christianity was recognized and its practice permitted on 
sufferance, churches were allowed to open, and confiscated Christian property 
was restored. 

This momentary relief uplifted the broken hearts of the Christians and 
aroused their zeal to rebuild their ruined churches and to add more magnificent 
ones. Official distrust was again aroused and even aggravated by the intensifi¬ 
cation of Roman despotism. Thus the scene changed during the reign of 
Emperor Diocletian (284-305), considered in Coptic opinion to this day as 
the consummation of the age of persecution. 

Nevertheless, in fairness to Diocletian, we have to remember that he began 
his reign with unusual magnanimity vis-a-vis Egypt and especially the city of 
Alexandria. He fortified the southern gate of the country, Syene (modern 
Aswan), to protect Upper Egypt from the destructive inroads of the Blemyes 
from Nubia. In Alexandria a Roman legionary called Lucius Domitius 
Domitianus, nicknamed Achilleus, revolted and declared himself emperor. 
At once Diocletian personally descended on the Egyptian coast and took the 
city by storm after a siege of eight months. Parts of the city were ruined in 
the onslaught, while its trade declined owing to instability. 1 Disease and famine 
were imminent in the impoverished city until Diocletian saved the situation 
of its inhabitants by deflecting part of Egypt’s corn harvest to Alexandria 
instead of Rome. This magnanimity was gratefully commemorated by the 
erection of a stupendous red granite pillar on the capital of which stood 
a bronze statue of the emperor. The pillar still stands, but the statue has 
gone. 2 

Diocletian wanted more. His autocracy aimed at the unification of every 
corner of the empire under his absolutism. Christianity was the most serious 
hurdle to the realization of his policy, and the Christians had been multiplying 
to the point of danger. It was in the year 302 that he started by the dismissal 
of every soldier in his legions who refused to conform in sacrificing to the 
Roman gods. In the following year he issued more edicts whereby Christian 
churches and Christian literature should be destroyed, Christian property 
confiscated, and all Christians be dismissed from all state offices throughout 

1 Milne, pp. 79-82, 219. 

2 Forster, pp. 51, 157-63. Known as ‘Pompey’s Pillar’, 84 ft. high and 7 ft. in diameter. 
Its granite base (10 ft. high) has an almost illegible inscription in Greek which has been 
deciphered with difficulty and translated as follows: ‘ To the Most just Emperor, the 
tutelary God of Alexandria, Diocletian the invincible: Postumus, prefect of Egypt.’ 


the empire. Communal meetings of Christians were forbidden, and he who 
broke the order must be put to death. 

But the Christians were no longer a mere handful of nonconformists. They 
were now sufficiently numerous to retaliate; and when they did, the Roman 
law was inflicted upon them without compassion. The result was a most for¬ 
midable wave of persecution and martyrdom. The intensity of the movement 
varied from country to country, and Egypt appears to have fared worse than 
many or all. Maiming and mutilation, blinding, slow diabolical torture and 
burning were amongst the barbarous savageries which the imperial agents 
employed in the destruction of their victims. Outright decapitation was an 
unusual act of mercy and a privilege rarely granted. Under duress of sheer 
human mortification, some recanted, though apparently not as many as in 
former persecutions. It is a galling experience to read the description of some 
of those brutalities in works like the Ecclesiastical History 1 of Eusebius or the 
History of the Patriarchs . 2 The number of martyrs was legion. The dungeons 
were full of men and women of all classes and stations in life, awaiting their 
turn for the rack and the gallows. It is difficult to conceive the official Church 
estimate of 144,000 to 800,000 martyrs. 3 On the other hand, we must remem¬ 
ber that the persecution inaugurated by Diocletian was sustained by Maxi¬ 
minus Daia (305-13), his successor in the East. It is said that the massacre 
was well-nigh ten years of systematic killing, and this could account for 
tremendous numbers. Amongst Maximinus’ victims was the seventeenth 
patriarch, Peter I (302-11), known as the ‘Seal of the Martyrs’. 

It would be impossible to enumerate even a reasonable selection of the 
martyrs of that era. The Coptic ‘Synaxarium’ 4 and the ‘Lives of Saints’ are 
full, and yet they represent only a fraction of that roll of heroic sacrifice. A 
few examples may, however, be illuminating. St Sophia, a native of ancient 
Memphis, in Middle Egypt, succumbed in the reign of the seventh patriarch, 
Eumenios (129-51), a contemporary of Emperors Hadrian (117-38) and 
Antonius Pius (138-61). Her body was later removed to Constantinople by 

1 For example, see VI, 39; VII, 11; VIII, 7 and 12. 

2 Evetts, II, 119-36. 

3 The first number is quoted by Fowler, p. 19, and Forster, p. 51; the second by Wahlb 
'Atalla Girgis, p. 135. The latest Coptic writer in Arabic, Zaki Shcnuda, gives the global 
figure of a million without stating his authority, op. cit., p. 109. 

4 Traditionally known to be compiled by Michael, bishop of Athrlb and Malig in the 
fifteenth century, or (according to O. H. E. Burmester, ‘On the Date and Authorship of 
the Arabic Synaxarium of the Coptic Church’, in The Journal of Theological Studies , T. 38, 
pp. 240-5 3) by Peter, bishop of Malig in the twelfth century. The Coptic Synaxarium is a 
set of homiletic biographies of saints and martyrs for all the days of the year. For lives of 
Coptic saints, see Kammerer’s Coptic Bibliography nos. 1283-1409; Graf, Gesch. d. Christ. 
Arab. Lit., I, 531-40, J. Balestri and H. Hyvernat, ‘Acta Martyrum’, in Corpus Scriptorum 
Christianorum Orientaliam , Scriptorus Coptici, 2 vols. (Paris, 1907-24); W. Till, Koptische 
Heiligen - und Martyrerlegeuden , 2 vols., Orientalia Cristiana Analecta, nos. 102 and 108 
(Rome, 1935-6); DeLacy O’Leary, The Saints of E&pt (London, 1937). 


Emperor Constantine I the Great (313-37), and the famous cathedral of 
Haghia Sophia was dedicated to her. The Holy Damiana, daughter of a 
governor of the northern Delta, retired to a nunnery with forty virgins, and 
all were massacred by Diocletian. The site of her retirement and martyrdom 
is still a favourite pilgrimage centre for the Copts. St Catherine of Alexandria 
was martyred at the early age of eighteen by Maximinus in 307, and the 
famous monastery on Mount Sinai still bears her name. St George, the famous 
Roman legionary, who was probably a noble of Cappadocia in Asia Minor, 
defied Diocletian and was martyred. It is possible that he was buried in Pales¬ 
tine, and his remains are said to have been brought to Egypt by the Coptic 
Patriarch Gabriel II (1131-45). St Mercurius, surnamed ‘The Two Sworded’, 
another Roman legionary, succumbed in 250 under Decius and was buried in 
Palestine. A fifteenth-century Coptic patriarch transferred his remains to Old 
Cairo, where a nunnery and a church are still dedicated to him. 

So profound was the impression of the persecution of Diocletian on Coptic 
life and thought that the Copts decided to adopt for church use a Calendar of 
the Martyrs - the Anno Martyri, which meant to them as much as the Anno 
Domini. The first year of that Calendar was 284, the disastrous year of the 
accession of Diocletian. The months they use with their own Calendar are 
those inherited from their distant forebears of the dynastic period of ancient 
Egypt. The farmers of the Coptic period used them, and so do the Muslim 
farmers of present-day Egypt. This tendency betrays the nationalist temper 
of the Egyptians even in religion and at that early date. 

After Diocletian and Maximinus Daia, the tide of Christian persecution 
receded. The next phase was inaugurated by the issue of the famous ‘Edict of 
Milan’ in 313 by Constantine the Great, even before he became sole ruler of 
the Roman empire, thereby enforcing religious toleration in the wider sense. 
After 323, the position was reversed when he forbade pagan practices in 
favour of Christianity, which had become the state religion. Thus came the 
turn of the Christian majority to persecute the pagan minority. In Egypt, 
Patriarch Theophilus (385-412) in person led the local rioting against the 
temples of Serapis. The one at Canopus (Abu Qir) fell in 389, and the chief 
temple in the capital was taken by storm in 411. With its fall a major part of 
the Ptolemaic Library, or Museion, was destroyed. Armies of Christian monks 
now camped in Alexandria, ready to attack the remnants of the pagan popula¬ 
tion. In 415 they intercepted the last of the pagan neo-Platonist philosophers, 
Hypatia, a woman of great dignity, while she was driving back from a lecture 
at the Museion. They dragged her to the Cxsareum, now a Christian church, 
and there stoned her to death. 1 

1 Bell, pp. 112, ti5; Hardy, pp. 104-5; Milne, pp. 98-9; Forster, pp. 55-6; M. Fowler, 
Christian Egypt (London, 1901), pp. 33-4. Charles Kingsley’s novel, Hypatia (London, 
1833) dramatizes her story. Socrates (Hist. Ecclcs., VII, 15) is the chief contemporary 


Hypatia’s violent death closed a chapter in the story of persecution. She 
was a faint glimmer of the ancient Greek culture, now formally extinguished. 
Egypt and the civilized world were won by Christ. Idolatry had no official 
status, and there were no more pagans to persecute. Whose turn was coming? 
As will be seen from the story of Chalcedon and its lamentable aftermath, the 
answer is that the time of Christians persecuting other Christians had arrived. 

For the time being, Alexandrine Christianity became the light of the world. 
The venerable fathers of the Coptic Church, the great theologians of the 
Catechetical School of Alexandria, the Coptic saints and heretics, the founders 
of monasticism, all these and numerous other illustrious Copts made perma¬ 
nent contributions to the establishment of the new faith. Throughout the age 
of Christian persecutions, the Copts fought fearlessly for the faith and wor¬ 
shipped, not in concealed catacombs or subterranean hiding, but openly on 
the face of the earth and invited the crown of martyrdom. They had won 
many spiritual battles in the past, but the future held for them many more 
fateful battles of a dogmatic or doctrinal nature with other Christian sects. 

The Catechetical School 

The Catechetical School of Alexandria was undoubtedly the earliest important 
institution of theological learning in Christian antiquity. Its members were 
responsible for the formulation of the first systems of Christian theology and 
for some of the most monumental works of exegesis. Yet it would be an error 
to limit its curriculum to theology. It was a college in which many other 
disciplines were included from the humanities, science and mathematics, 
although its chief function in the age of faith was religion. Its origins are 
shrouded in the mist of time, and our knowledge of its existence must be 
associated with the well-known scholars who presided over it, although there 
is no reason to believe that it very long predated them. But the native orthodox 
assumption 1 that St Mark was its founder must belong to the realm of legend. 
The earliest known reference to it occurred in the life of Pantsenus, who died 
about 190 a.d. From that time on it was conducted parallel to the older but 
pagan Museion, until the latter began to dwindle and was ultimately liquidated 
after the assassination of Hypatia in 415. 

Most of the eminent leaders of Alexandrine Christianity are known to have 
been connected with it either as teachers or students. In fact, the history of 

source to mention her story. She was a Neoplatonist and a mathematician of no mean 
stature. She taught both pagans and Christians. One of her eminent Christian pupils was 
Synesius, bishop of Cyrene, who commemorated her highly in his epistles. 

1 Wahib ’Atalla Girgis, p. 136; Zaki Shenuda, p. 120; Iris Habib El-Ma$ry, p. 35. 


that school may be summed up in the biographies of those personalities who 
headed it, and whose contributions to theological scholarship still constitute 
the solid basis of any study of Christian divinity. 

The first great name to emerge at the head of the school was Pantamus. 1 
In all probability he was a native of Sicily, although there is no proof as to 
his origin. The Copts describe him as a citizen of Egypt. 2 Certainly he was 
an inhabitant of Alexandria. Apart from being a great teacher, he is credited 
as one of the early architects of the adoption of the Greek alphabet in the 
Coptic script. His works of exegesis have been lost. At some time in the course 
of his service, Partiarch Demetrius I elected him for the Christian mission to 
India, and this he is known to have undertaken after seeking a worthy substi¬ 
tute as head of his school. 

His choice of a successor fell upon Clement of Alexandria. 3 Clement was 
the most illustrious of the pupils of Pantasnus and was probably an Athenian 
born of pagan parents about 150 a.d. He died around the year 215. He be¬ 
came head of the school before 190, and in the time of severe persecution by 
Septimius Severus, he fled from Alexandria. He studied Gnosticism, which 
seemed to have had many exponents and followers in his day. It is interesting 
to note that his outlook on this much-debated subject was not altogether 
hostile. He seemed to agree that gnosis, that is, religious knowledge or illumina¬ 
tion, was the essence of Christian perfection. Like Socrates, Clement con¬ 
sidered ignorance as worse than sin. He even promoted the idea of the divine 
origin of philosophy. His aim was to prove that the very constitution of the 
Church and Scriptures was not incompatible with Greek philosophy. Cate¬ 
chumens should not be discouraged from the pursuit of Greek learning. Thus 
we find Clement zealously teaching philosophy side by side with theology, 
although at times he found himself in the embarrassing position of labouring 
to establish the theory that the Greeks plagiarized Moses and the Old Testa¬ 
ment. At any rate, Clement wrote abundantly, though much of his work is 
lost. His chief works are An Exhortation to the Greeks , the PedagogUs on 

1 J. Quasten, Patrology, 3 vols. (Westminster, Md., 1951-60), II, 4-5; A. von Harnack, 
Gescbichte der altchristlichen Eitteratur bis Eusebius, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1893-1904), I, 291-6; 
G. Bardy, ‘Aux origines de l’ecole d’Alexandrie’, in Recberches de science religieuse , XXVII 
(Paris, 1937), 65-90. 

2 Zaki Shenuda, pp. 121-2. In support of this was his zeal for writing the Coptic 
language in Greek characters. 

3 J. E. L. Oulton and H. Chadwick, Alexandrian Christianity (The Library of Christian 
Classics, Philadelphia, 1956), pp. 56 ff.; Quasten, II, 5-36; Scott-Moncricff, pp. 53 ff., 
78 f.; Bell, pp. 90-1; Hardy, pp. 13-16. See also G. Bardy, Clement d'Alexandrie (Paris, 
1926); L. de Faye, Clement dt Alexandrie, 2nd edn. (Paris, 1906); F. R. M. Hitchcock, 
Clement of Alexandria (London, 1899); J. Patrick, Clement of Alexandria (Edinburgh, 1914); 
R. B. Tollinton, Cle?nent of Alexandria—A Study in Christian Liberalism (London, 1914); 
idem, Alexandrine Peaching on the Universe (New York, 1932); J. Munck, Unterschungen 
iiber Klemens von Alexandria (Stuttgart, 1933); G. Catalfamo, S. Clemente Alessandrino 
(Brescia, 1951). 


Christian life and ethics, and his ‘Miscellaneous Studies’ ( Stromateis ) in which 
he compiled numerous treatises of varied character somewhat difficult to 
construe. His erudition is seen especially in the series of discussions whereby 
he attempted to reconcile Greek culture and Christianity. He is rightly re¬ 
garded as one of the earliest apostles of Christian liberalism. 

Origen 1 followed Clement about the year 215 . A true son of Egypt, Coptic 
to the core, Origen had been born of ardent Christian parents around 185, 
either in Alexandria or somewhere else in Egypt, and died about 254.2 He 
was Clement’s most brilliant pupil. As a child he had lived through the anguish 
of his father’s martyrdom for the Christian faith. As a young man he was 
extremely ascetic by nature, observed the most rigorous vigils, and carried 
the word of the Gospel literally to the extent of mutilating himself, thus 
becoming a eunuch, 3 a fact which contributed to his future troubles with the 
imperious Patriarch Demetrius I. His education was enriched by the know¬ 
ledge he readily absorbed from his learned master Clement. He also studied 
pagan philosophy and literature under Ammonius Saccas (174-242), the real 
founder of Neoplatonism whose directive influence captivated Plotinus. He 
must have attended Saccas’ lectures with Plotinus at the Ptolemaic School of 
Alexandria. Pie also travelled widely and became acquainted with most of 
the eminent scholars and prelates of his day. His wanderings extended from 
Arabia and Syria to Greece and Rome, where he attended sermons by St 
Hippolytus. Origen was destined to become one of the world’s greatest 
exegetical scholars of all time. 

As a biblical scholar and philosopher, his erudition was massive and his 
creativity was colossal. There is hardly a single book in the Old and New 
Testaments on which he did not write a lengthy commentary. His amazing 

1 Probably derived from the ancient Egyptian god Horus. 

2 Oulton and Chadwick, pp. 171 ff; Quasten, II, 37-101; Bell, pp. 90-1; Hardy, pp. 
13-14, 16-18, 91-2, 95-7. See also R. Cadiou, Introduction an systeme d'Origene (Paris, 1932); 
idem, La jeunesse d'Origene—Histoire de Tecole d' Alexandrie au debut du Ille siecle (Paris, 1935); 
J. Danielou, Origene (Paris, 1948); J. J. Denis, De la philosophic d'Origene (Paris, 1884); 
P. de Faye, Origene—Sa vie , son ceuvre, sapensec, 3 vols. (Paris, 1923-8), English tr. F. Roth- 
well, Origen and His Work (London, 1926); R. P. C. Hanson, Origen's Doctrine of Tradition 
(London, 1954); A. von Harnack, History of Dogma, tr. from 3rd German cdn. by N. 
Buchanun, 7 vols. (Boston, 1895-1900); idem, Der kirchengeschichtliche Ertag der exegetischen 
Arbeiten des Origenes (Leipzig, 1919); J. Tixcront, History of Dogmas , 3 vols. (St. Louis, 
Mo.), tr. from 5th French edn. by H.L.B., I, 256 ff.; A. Lieske, Die Theologie der Logos- 
Mystik bei Origenes (Munster, 1938); H. de Lubac, Histoire et Esprit - L y intelligence de 
Tecriture d'apres Origene (Paris, 1950); E. R. Rcdepcnning, Origenes , eine Darstellung seines 
Lebens und seiner Lehre (Bonn, 1841); W. Volker, Das Vollkommenheitsideal des Origenes 
(Tiibigen, 1931); W. E. Barnes,‘The Third Century Greatest Christian - Origen’, in The 
Expository Times , No. 44 (Edinburgh, 1932-33), pp. 295-300; W. R. Inge, Origen , British 
Academy Annual Lectures on a Master Mind (London, 1946); J. Champonicr, ‘Naissance 
de l’humanisme chretien’, in Bulletin de TAssociation G. Bude (1947), pp. 58-96. 

3 Matthew xix, 12: ‘There are eunuchs which made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom 
of heaven’s sake.’ 


critical edition of the Old Testament, the Hexaplaf combined in six parallel 
columns all the available texts in both Greek and Hebrew scripts. This was 
the work used by St Jerome in Csesarea. His monumental exegetical com¬ 
mentaries, entitled Scholia , 2 were partly put into Latin by Rufinus. Only 
fragments of both have survived. Origen’s homilies are reputed to be amongst 
the most ancient specimens of Christian preaching. In the realm of theology, 
his most important work was the De Principiisf in which he systematized the 
whole of the Christian doctrine in four books: on God and the celestial world, 
on man and matter, on free will and its impact, and on the Scriptures. Though 
the original of that ambitious project perished almost completely, its purport 
has survived in rather inadequate Latin renderings by Rufinus and St Jerome. 
In a treatise called Contra CelsunP Origen defended Christianity from attacks 
by the second-century pagan philosopher Celsus. He wrote a number of ascetic 
works, of which two have come down to us. The Exhortation to Martyrdom 0 
was composed in 23 5 during Emperor Maximinus’ persecution. His more ex¬ 
tensive work On Prayer 6 had a great appeal to the mind of the early Christians. 

His troubles started again during his first visit to Palestine when he was 
invited by the bishops of A Elia and Caesarea to preach in their dioceses. It 
was unthinkable in Alexandrine ecclesiastical discipline that a layman could 
preach in the presence of bishops. Demetrius was an authoritarian cleric, who 
was unconsciously pushing patriarchal prerogative to the edge of a monarchi¬ 
cal system unable to accept uncontrolled initiative, even if it came from so 
great a personality as Origen. Demetrius at once recalled him to Alexandria 
around the year 218. For some twelve years he sustained the gathering storm 
and buried himself in writing and teaching. The ‘winds of wickedness’ were 
blowing hard against him, and synods started discussing his life and dissect¬ 
ing his thought. Finally the hour of deliverance came when he fled back to 
Palestine in 230. There he was honoured and promptly ordained to the priest¬ 
hood. It is said that he was even considered for the episcopate. As expected, 
this action provoked Demetrius, who hastened to nullify the ordination and 
excommunicate his unbending adversary, whom he also dismissed from 

1 H. H. Howorth, ‘The Hexapla and Tctrapla of Origen’, in Proceedings of the Society of 
Biblical Archceology, No. 24 (1902), pp. 147-72; H. M. Orlinsky, ‘The Columnar Order of 
the Hexapla’, in The Jewish Quarterly, XXVII, n.s. (1936), 137-49; W. E. Staples, ‘The 
Second Column of Origen’s Hexapla’, in Journal of the American Oriental Society , LIX 
(1959), 71-80. 

2 C. Diobouniotis and A. von Harnack, Der Scholienkommentar des Origenes %ur Apokalypse 
Johannis , Texte und Untersuchungen, Bd. 38, Heft 3 (Leipzig, 1911); C. H. Turner, ‘The 
Newly Discovered Scholia of Origen on the Apocalypse’, in Journal of Theological Studies 
(1912), pp. 386-97; idem, ‘Scholia in Apocalypsin’, in Journal of Theological Studies (1924), 
pp. 1-16. 

3 G. W. Buttcrworth, Origen on First Principles (London, 1936). 

4 See H. Chadwick, Origen - Contra Celsum (Cambridge, 1953). 

5 Oulton and Chadwick, pp. 388-429; Quastcn, TI, 69-73. 

6 Oulton and Chadwick, pp. 180-387; Quastcn, II, 66-9. 


the Catechetical School. Origen became an exile, and in 231 he settled in 
Cassarea, where a new school arose around his person with more distinguished 
candidates. Some of his pupils, such as Gregory Thaumaturgus, bishop of 
Neocsesarea in Pontus, rose to key positions in the hierarchy. He arbitrated 
in doubtful cases of theology inside and outside Palestine. But the real glory 
of his calmer life at Caesarea was the accomplishment of his immense literary 

During the Decian persecution of 250, however, the great master suffered 
tremendously but with fortitude. He was imprisoned and tortured. Though 
he survived the horrors of his ordeal and regained his freedom, his health 
began to decline, and he died at the city of Tyre in 2 5 5, at the age of sixty-nine. 

Origen, like most universal thinkers and prolific writers, 1 became a con¬ 
troversial figure both in his lifetime and after his death. The term Origenism 
was freely accepted in the realms of theology 2 and philosophy as a formidable 
institution with a supporting school of Origenists and an equally ardent school 
of anti-Origenists. 3 It is impossible in these pages to embark on even thebrief- 
est analysis of Origenist theories about such subjects as the unity of God, its 
relation to the Trinity, the doctrine of subordinationism,his audacious theory 
about souls and their prenatal existence and destiny after death, and numerous 
other physical and metaphysical controversies of almost unfathomable depth. 
Suffice to mention that many of the greatest names of his day and even after¬ 
wards joined the fray for or against Origen. In his defence we may read St 
Pamphylius (martyred in 209), St Athanasius the Apostolic, St Basil, St 
Gregory Nazianzen, Didymus the Blind and others. In the hostile camp we 
meet St Epiphaneus, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, and both St Jerome and 
Theophilus of Alexandria, who turned against Origen in later times. In the 
fifth century. Church councils were convened solely to discuss Origen’s 
views. After a short lull, the Origenist controversy flared up again in the 
sixth century, and Origen was repeatedly condemned by two councils, held 
at Constantinople in 542 and 553, with the connivance of the Emperor 
Justinian himself. 

Until the discord between Demetrius and Origen, and the decision of the 
latter to quit Egypt for Caesarea in Palestine, the Catechetical School of 
Alexandria, though closely associated with the Church, succeeded in retaining 
at least in theory, and to a considerable extent in practice, its academic freedom 

1 Wahib f Atalla Girgis, p. 138, states that ‘Origen wrote more than 6000 books' in the 
authorship of which his pupils contributed. But even so, there is exaggeration in the 
statement, and I do not know its origin. However, Origen was surely one of the most 
prolific writers of any age. 

2 W. Fairweather, Origen and Greek Patristic Theology (New York, 1901); F. Prat, Origcnc , 
le theologien et Pexegete , 3rd cdn. (Paris, 1907); cf. Quasten, IT, 75 ff.; Harnack, History of 
Dogma , IV, 340 ff.; Tixeront, History of Dogmas , II, 331 ff., and III, 129 ff. 

3 L. B. Radford, Three Teachers of Alexandria - Theognostus, Picrius and Peter: A Study in 
the Early History of Origenism and Anti-Origenism (Cambridge, 1908). 


and independence. After Origen’s flight to Palestine and his dismissal from 
office at Alexandria, the School came under the direct control of patriarchal 
and Church authority. His immediate successor was Heraclas, 1 his former 
pupil and assistant who later followed Demetrius in the episcopate from 230 
to 246. One of his first acts was to lift his predecessor’s sentence of excom¬ 
munication from Origen and to urge the return of the great master to 
Alexandria, but in vain. His reign is of interest on another account. It is said 
that when he increased the number of local bishops to twenty, the presbyters 
of the Church decided to distinguish him from the rest of the bishops by 
calling him Tapa’. If this is true, then the first prelate in Christendom to bear 
the title of pope was Heraclas the Copt in the early part of the third century, 
long before it was known to Rome. 2 

The next head of the School, another famous pupil of Origen, was Dionysius 
of Alexandria, later surnamed the Great. 3 He occupied that post until he 
became patriarch (246-64). His reign was full of troubles. In 250 the Decian 
persecution drove the patriarch into secret hiding, though he was once arrested 
but escaped. In 257 another persecution was conducted by the Emperor 
Valerian. The country was harassed from the south by barbarian tribes. In 
Alexandria, iEmilianus, prefect of Egypt, declared himself emperor, and civil 
war broke out which ended in his capture by the imperial general Theodotus, 
who sent the rebel in chains to Rome. 4 The war, however, devastated the 
city and depleted the population. Plague was imminent and famine at the 

1 Evetts, II, 76-9. Thin biography with little on him in current historical literature. 
Iris Ei-Masry, pp. 72-5, accounts for the shortage of material on him by the loss of his 
ancient biographies rather than the lack of energy or enthusiasm which produced an 
eventless reign. 

2 B. Labanca, ‘Del norne Papa nelle chiese cristiane di Oriente ed Occidente’, in Actes 
du Double me Congres International des Orientalistes , Rome, 1899, III, ii (Florence, 1902), 
47-101, with bibliography. Cf. F. L. Cross, ‘Pope’, in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian 
Church (London, 1957). Gregory VII limited the use of the title solely to the bishop of 
Rome in the Council of Rome in 1073. Wahlb 'Atalla Girgis, p. 134, determines the 
emergence of the title in the reign of Heraclas, and Iris El-Masry, p. 73, no. 1, ascribes 
this fact to the authority of the tenth-century Coptic historian Sa'id ibn Batrlq, though 
she contends that the title was used as early as iEnianus, the second patriarch, as is cited 
by the historian Maqrlzi in his Geschichte der Copten , Arabic edn. with German tr. F. 
Wustenfeld (Gottingen, 1845), P- 8 - Worrell {Short Account of Copts , p. 17) uses the term 
Papa or ‘Pope’ in relation to Alexandros at the Council of Nicaea in 325. 

3 Evetts, I, 80-93; C. L. Feltoe, The Letters and Other Remains of Dionysius of Alexandria 
(critical edn. with introduction and notes; Cambridge, 1904); idem, St Dionysius of Alex¬ 
andria: Letters and Treatises , English tr. (London, 1918); F. C. Conybeare, ‘Newly Dis¬ 
covered Letters of Dionysius of Alexandria to the Popes Stephen and Xystus’, in English 
Historical Review , XXV (1910), m-14; J. Burel, Denys d’Alexandrie - Sa vie , son temps , 
ses oeuvres (Paris, 1910); P. S. Miller, Studies in Dionysius the Great of Alexandria (diss. 
Erlangen, 1933); F. Dittrich, Dionysius der Grosse von Alexandrien (Freiburg, 1876); 
P. Morize, Denys d y Alexandrie (Paris, 1881); T. Panaitescu, Das Leben und literarische 
Tatigkcit des hi. Dionysius von Alexandrien (Bucarest, 1905). 

4 Milne, Egypt under Roman Rule , pp. 73-4. 


door. At the end of every persecution, Dionysius was faced with the problem 
of the apostates. But he was broad-minded enough to readmit them, and he 
moreover forbade the rebaptism of returned heretics and schismatics. It is a 
wonder that he had time to compose a number of theological works, where 
he displayed an independent but rather controversial mind. He was accused 
of tritheism by his namesake at Rome, was defended by Athanasius, and 
opposed by Basil. In regard to the Trinity, however, he himself rejected the 
heretical innovations of Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch and wealthy 
procurator of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. 1 

At a later date Athanasius entrusted Didymus 2 the Blind with the headship 
of the School from about 315 to 398. He lived during the tempestuous age 
of Arianism and the Council of Nicasa. Among his pupils were St Gregory 
Nazianzen, St Jerome and the historian Rufinus. He was a man of erudition, 
but his works are almost all lost. It is said that the treatise entitled Against 
Arius and Sabellius , preserved under Gregory of Nyssa’s name, was dictated 
by him. It is interesting to know that he cared for the welfare of the blind - 
he had been blind since the age of four - by promoting for the first time in 
history a system of embossed or engraved writing for them. After Didymus 
we enter the obscure period in the history of the School. It had done its share 
in shaping Christian doctrine and theological scholarship in those formative 
years. Then the zeal and the knowledge began to fade, and with them a great 

Saints and Heretics: Age of Athanasius and Cyril 

The reign of Constantine the Great ushered in the triumph of Christianity 
over paganism and the reversal of the policy of persecution in which the 
Church Militant began to bait those who still adhered to the old idolatry. 
Save for its temporary recurrence during the rule of Julian the Apostate 
(332-63), paganism proved to be gasping its last breath. In the province of 
Egypt, the reaction to Julian’s relapse turned out to be increasing violence. 
The regimented monks of Mareotis and Nitrea intimidated the aristocratic 
remnants of the worshippers of Serapis in Alexandria, while the battalions of 
St Shenute of Panopolis (the modern Akhmlm) set out to wipe away paganism 

1 Hardy, pp. 23-9. 

2 G. Bardy, Didyme VAveugle (Paris, 1910). Edition of works by J. A. Mingarclli (Bologna, 
1769), reproduced in Migne, Patrologia Graca T. 39, col. 131-1818. Among later and less 
famous names at the leadership of the School toward the end of the third and the begin¬ 
ning of the fourth centuries were Theognostus, who directed it from about 265 to 282; his 
follower Peirius, noted for poverty and for learning in philosophy; Peter, about 300; and 
Hesychius in the fourth century. Quasten, II, 109-18, and III, 85-100. 


from the Thebaic! and destroy or transform the old pagan temples into 
Christian churches. 

During the early persecutions, converts to the new faith were necessarily 
driven into a united front and had no time to dwell on or rather bicker about 
details of doctrine. With progressive relief from external brutal pressures, the 
Christians began to weigh all manner of emerging theological problems and 
argue about doctrinal differences. The outcome was the rise of heresy, which 
may be defined as divergence from the formal orthodox doctrine accepted 
by Church authority. It would of course be a grave error to describe a heretic 
as an irreligious person. On the contrary, some of the early heretics were 
deeply attached to the faith and often combined great erudition with profound 
piety or even self-inflicted asceticism. This was the age of saints and heretics, 
and both were well-meaning Christians, each in accordance with his creed or 

The patristic period in Church history is marked by the appearance of 
numerous heresies. In Egypt, two major heresies in succession gained con¬ 
siderable ground throughout the country and accordingly deserve an attempt 
at a brief analysis. One was Gnosticism, which struck root in the second 
century, and the other was Arianism, which disturbed the peace of Egypt and 
the whole empire in the fourth. 

The historic background of Egyptian Gnosticism 1 was closely associated 
with two second-century Alexandrine teachers, namely, Valentinus and 
Basilides. They developed an elaborate religious order based on a multitude 
of pre-Christian and even pagan antecedents and gave it a Christian setting 
by trying to combine their tenets with the terms of the Holy Scriptures. The 
result was a system in which both syncretism and symbolism prevailed. In a 
society where paganism and late Egyptian magic were still a living memory, 
Gnosticism developed into a kind of esoteric cult of a mystic and mysterious 

The central factor in the redemption of man was the Greek gnosis , or the 
revealed knowledge of God which was reserved for the spiritual elite. The 
privilege of this revelation was attained by the illuminati through the medium 
of complex esoteric practices with obscure occult incantations and metaphysi¬ 
cal speculation. They recognized the existence of a Supreme Being or God of 
unknowable and unfathomable nature beyond human comprehension. From 
that remote Being descended vast numbers of ( xons\ angelic forms or emana¬ 
tions which in turn gave rise to the Demiurge, who was the immediate creator 

1 For the literature on Gnosticism, see Kammerer’s Coptic bibliography , nos. 1596-1664, 
pp. 91-5. See also R. M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York, 1959); Jean 
Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics - A.n Introduction to the Gnostic Coptic 
manuscripts discovered at Chenoboskion, with an English translation and critical evaluation of The 
Gospel according to Thomas (New York, i960). This latter was originally published in 
French in Paris, 1958. 


of the world. That Demiurge ruled the terrestrial spheres, which were evil and 
devoid of spirituality. Then Jesus, whom Gnostics recognized as the Logos 
and the representative of the Supreme Being, came down with the light of 
the gnosis, whose spark was apostolically transmitted to future generations of 
spiritual elite. The Visits Sophia 1 and the books of Jett , 2 original monuments 
of Gnostic operations known for over a century, provide the details of a 
fantastic apocalyptic cosmology with various stages through which the chosen 
and illuminated souls might ascend towards perfection and beatific bliss. 

According to Gnostic teachings, Christ had only an illusory human appear¬ 
ance and did not assume any tangible or material fleshly frame. When it came 
to the Crucifixion and death, they assert that he was either miraculously 
saved from that agony or that he had a substitute in the person of Judas 
Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene. This is identical with the main substance of 
another, less widespread but slightly older, first to second-century heresy 
known as Docetism, 3 which bears a striking resemblance to the Qur’anic 4 
theory of Jesus in Islam. 

Both heresies were condemned by the Church and attacked by the early 
Fathers from their very inception. Docetism with its phantasmal thesis of 
Jesus was attacked by St Ignatius (ca. 35-107), bishop of Antioch, as he was 
ready to enter the Roman arena for martyrdom. Gnosticism was forcefully 
bombarded by St Irenacus (ca. 130-200), bishop of Lyons, and Tertullian 
(ca. 160-220) of Carthage, and the Roman doctor and theologian StHippolytus 
(ca. 170-236). The irregularity of those heresies, however, should not delude 
us from the intense piety and asceticism of their followers. Gnosticism 
apparently survived until it became merged in Egypt with the Manichccan 
doctrine of the dual godhead. 

1 E. C. Amelineau, Pistis-Sophia , Oavrage gnostique de Valentin , traduit du Copte en franfais 
avec une introduction (Paris, 1895); G. W. Horner, Pistis Sophia , with introd. by F. Legge 
(London, 1924); G. R. S. Mead, Pistis Sophia, A. Gnostic Gospel . . . (London, 1896); 
M. G. Schwartze, Pistis Sophia, Opus gnosticum \ r alentino . . . (Berlin, 1851); C. Schmidt, 
Pistis Sophia, neu herausgegehen wit einleitung nebst griechischem und koptischem Wort- und 
Namenregister (Hauniae, 1925); idem, German tr. (Leipzig, 1925). 

2 Scott-Moncrieff, pp. 148-97; Grant, p. 41; Doresse, p. 77. 

3 Discussed in most of early Christian histories and religious dictionaries and encyclo¬ 
paedias. See also Oulton and Chadwick, pp. 23, 32-3, 88, 163; H. Bettenson, The Early 
Christian Fathers (Oxford, 1956), pp. 5, 60, 241; R. M. Jones, The Church's Debt to Heretics 
(New York, 1924), pp. 41, 53-8. On Marcion, famous advocate of Docetism, see A. von 
Harnack, Das Evangelium von fremden Gott (Leipzig, 1924) and Neue Studien ^ u Marcion 
(Leipzig, 1924); idem, History of Dogma , I, 222 ff.; Tixcront, History of Dogmas , I, 183 ff.; 
R. S. Wilson, Marcion (London, 1933); E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (New 
York, 1950); J. Knox, Marcion and the New Testament (Chicago, 1942); Doresse, pp. 24-6; 
F. C. Conybeare, The Origins of Christianity (New York, 1958), pp. 329-46. 

4 Surah IV: 157 reads as follows: ‘And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah 
Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger - They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared 
so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in no doubt thereof; they have 
no knowledge save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain.’ 


It is to be remembered that our acquaintance with the Gnostic heresy has 
come chiefly through its enemies, for the usual practice in the Church was 
the complete destruction of all heretical material whenever that was con¬ 
demned by the authorities. In recent years, however, a discovery of no less 
consequence than that of the Dead Sea Scrolls took place in the held of Gnostic 
sources in Upper Egypt. This is the Chenoboskion collection of Coptic 
papyrus codices containing ‘The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics’, 
found in the neighbourhood of Nag r Hamadi, north of Luxor. These manu¬ 
scripts are presumably fourth-century Coptic translations of second-century 
Greek originals. Apart from demonstrating the extent of the spread and the 
survival of Gnostic teachings within Egypt, these codices will undoubtedly 
throw a flood of light on the original nature of the heresy. Already they have 
revealed for the first time the existence of a considerable number of apocryphal 
Biblical texts which were either unknown or known only by name. 1 

Gnosticism was ultimately superseded in the public eye by another, much 
more menacing heresy in which emperors, patriarchs, and whole hierarchies 
became involved for more than half a century. In fact, this proved to be the 
greatest metaphysical battle of the fourth century. The issue at stake was 
Christological - in other words, the question of the Trinitarian unity and the 
relation of Jesus to God, of the Son to the Father, and the place of the Holy 
Ghost in the whole thesis. At the crucial juncture in the development of the 
Creed for all time, the faithful found themselves torn asunder between two 
schools of thought. Whereas one party followed the patriarch Alexander, or 
rather the Athanasian principle of consubstantiation, of the homoousios , signi¬ 
fying the Son and the Father to be one and the same essence, another danger¬ 
ously large group accepted the Arian homoiousios , indicating that the Son even 
with his divine origin was only of like essence, begotten of the Father as an 
instrument for the creation of the world and consequently His unequal in 
eternity. 2 

1 Doresse, pp. 142-5, lists 49 texts contained in the 13 codices preserved in the Coptic 
Museum from the Nag f Hamadi Papyri together with the Jung Codex now in Zurich. 
Two of the texts have already been published: (1) Tivangelium \ z eritatis (Jung Codex), 
ed. and tr. M. Malinine, H.-C. Puech and G. Quispel (Zurich, 1956); (2) The Gospel accord¬ 
ing to Thomas , Coptic text established and tr. A. Guillaumont, H.-C. Puech, G. Quispel, 
W. Till and Yassa f Abd al-MassIh (Leiden and New York, 1959). See also The Gospel of 
1 ruth - A Valentinian Meditation on the Gospel , tr. from the Coptic and with commentary 
by K. Grobel (London, i960); The Gospel of Philip , tr. from the Coptic with introduction 
and commentary by R. McL. Wilson (London, 1962). 

2 Chief sources included in Patrologias, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Library, and 
Mansi and Hefele for Councils. See Athanasius, Epiphaneus, Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, 
Philostorgius, Theodoret, Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Gregory of 
Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, St Basil of Cappadocia. There is a vast array of secondary 
sources. Some of the older standard works still stand including monumental church 
histories and special monographs. In addition to the general works, the following is a 
useful selection: G. Hermant, La vie de saint Athanase , patriarche d y Alexandrie, 2 vols. 
(Paris, 1671-79); L. Maimbourg, Histoire de TArianisme (Paris, 1675; English tr. 1728-29); 


Here we are treading on tender soil, and it might be a treacherous venture 
to delve too deeply into the endless outpour of theological arguments of the 
age. But since the central battlefield was Alexandria and Egypt, a brief treat¬ 
ment of some of the broader elements of the subject seems inevitable in any 
outline of Coptic history. 

Although the outbreak of the universal controversy began in the reign of 
the aged Bishop Alexander (d. 328), the two chief actors in the drama were 
Arius (ca. 250-33 6) and Athanasius (ca. 2 96-3 7 3). The latter was the patriarchal 
secretary and the power behind the throne of Alexander until he succeeded 
him in 328. Both Arius and Athanasius were learned theologians, ascetic in 
temperament, irreproachable in character, with infinite zeal, determination 
and extraordinary ability in preaching. Arius was probably a Lybian by birth, 
educated in the Antiochian School under Lucian (ca. 312), and he approached 
the problem with simplicity from the sharp angle of dialectic. Athanasius was 
an Alexandrian, who attended the Catechetical School of his native city, and 
grew up with a mystic outlook on matters of faith. Whereas Arius drew his 
support essentially from Greek or pro-Greek elements, Athanasius had Egypt 
and the Fathers of the Desert solidly behind him. Arianism seemed to enjoy a 
more universal appeal at the beginning, notably beyond the confines of 
Egypt, and thus Athanasius found himself standing against the world (. Athan¬ 
asius contra mundiim , et mundus contra Athanasiiim'). 

The story started with Alexander’s nomination of Arius as presbyter of 
the historic and rather important Church of Baucalis. The Arian system of 
Christology had already been laid out in Antioch on the basis of the sub¬ 
ordination^ theology expounded by Lucian. Hitherto subordinationism 

G. Bull, Defensio Fidei Niccenae (Oxford, 1703; English tr., 1851); J. A. Mohler, Athanasius 
der Grosse (Mainz, 1844); H. Voigt, Die Lehre des Athanasius (Bremen, 1861); F. Bohringcr, 
Athanasius und Arius (Leipzig, 1874); W. Rolling, Geschichte der arianischen Haresie bis yir 
Fntscheidung in Nicaa, 2 vols. (Giitcrsloh, 1874-83); J. H. Newman, 1 he Arians of the 
Fourth Century (London, 1876); A. P. Stanley, The Council and Creed of Constantinople in 
Christian Institutions (London, 1881); H. M. Gwatkin, Studies of Arianism (Cambridge, 
1900); E. Fialon, St Athanase , Etude litteraire (Paris, 1877); L. Atzbcrger, Die Logoslehre 
des Athanasius , ihre Gegner und Verlaufer (Munich, 1880); W. Bright, Lessons from the Lives 
of Three Great Fathers (New York, 1891); P. Lauchert, Die Lehre des heiligen Athanasius, 
(Leipzig, 1895); K. Hoss, Studien iiber Schrifttum und Theologie des Athanasius (Freiburg, 
1899); Quasten, Vatrology, III, 7-13 (Arius), 13-19 (Alexandrus), 20-79 (Athanasius); 
L. L. Paine, Critical History of the Evolution of Trinitarianism (Boston, 1900); W. F. Frazer, 
Against Arianism , St Athanasius (London, 1900); L. FI. Plough, Athanasius the Hero 
(Cincinnati, 1906); P. Snellman, Der Anfang des arianischen Streites (Helsingfors, 1904); 
A. Rogala, Die Anfange des arianischen Streites (Paderborn, 1907); F. Haase, Altchristliche 
Kirchengeschichte nach orientalischen Quellen (Leipzig, 1925); G. Bardy, Saint Athanase (Paris, 
1914); K. F. Hagel, Kirche und Kaisertum in Lehre des Athanasius (Leipzig, 1933); A. E. 
Burn, The Athanasian Creed (Oxford, 1912); F. L. Cross, ‘The Study of St. Athanasius’ 
(lecture, Oxford, 1945); R. M. Jones, The Church's Debt to Heretics, pp. 85-103. From the 
Coptic side, see bibliographical listing in Kammerer, nos. 1112-30, 1280-81, 2435-37. 


was a relatively obscure heresy which placed Jesus and the Holy Ghost in 
a subordinate position relative to the Father. Alexander did not realize the 
seriousness of the situation until the fiery Arius set Baucalis ablaze with his 
unorthodox teachings. The alarmed patriarch sought to put a stop to this 
new wave by summoning a local synod of some hundred bishops at Alexandria 
about 320, and he secured their condemnation of Arius, whom he conse¬ 
quently suspended from service and excommunicated. 

In the meantime, the defeated but undaunted Arius continued to bring 
pressure to bear upon the orthodox party from two sides. A poet and a 
musician of fair stature, he versified his theology in a collection of hymns 
known as Thalia 1 (banquet), on models of popular folk songs, and the ruse 
worked with the populace, who sang Arian Christology everywhere. Arius 
also had access to the imperial palace in Constantinople through his former 
fellow-student Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, a friend of Emperor Con¬ 
stantine, whom he later baptized. The emperor was interested in unity above 
all considerations, and was thus prevailed upon to write both contestants to 
refrain from their ‘incomprehensible logomachy’ and to terminate their differ¬ 
ences. He also commissioned Hosius (ca. 257-3 57), the aged and celebrated 
bishop of Cordova, to mediate and report on the situation. The impasse was 
found to be insurmountable, and the Emperor yielded to the recommendations 
of both Hosius and Alexander by summoning an (Ecumenical Council to 
meet at Nioea 2 in Bithynia in the summer of 325. 

Thus for the first time in history, representative bishops of all Christen¬ 
dom - Western, Byzantine, African and Eastern - traditionally numbering 
318, convened to settle all outstanding dogmatic and doctrinal differences. 
The Niaean deliberations gave Christianity a Creed which has survived to 
this day. Arianism was condemned and Arius together with four bishops 
who refused to sign the text of the Creed were deposed and banished. This 
was perhaps the first instance in which civil punishment was imposed for 
religious heresy. Behind the Nictean triumph stood the persuasive eloquence 
of Athanasius, still a young deacon, who came to the Council in the train of 
his old bishop, Alexander. 

1 G. Bardy, ‘La Thalie d’Arius’, in Revue de Philogie, LIII (1927), 211-33. 

2 Present day Isnik in Turkey. For sources, see P. Batiffol, ‘Les sources de Phistoire du 
Concile de Nicee’, in Echos d’Orient, XXVIII (1925), 385-402, and XXX (1927), 5-17; 
Kammerer, Coptic Bibliography , nos. 1256-73. Also G. D. Mansi, Sacrormn Conciliorum 
Nova et Amplissima Collectio, 59 vols. (Florence etc., 1729-1927), Vol. II, pp. 635 ff.; 
C. J. Hefele on Councils, see standard augmented French translation by H. Lcclercq, 
Histoire des conciles , 8 vols. (Paris, 1907-21), T. I, pt. 1, pp. 442 ff. and T. I, pt. 2, pp. 633 ff., 
1139 ff.; J. Chrystal, Authoritative Christianity: Decisions of the Six Sole Ecumenical Councils, 
6 vols. (Jersey City, 1891), Vol. I, pt. 1 (Nicsea). Also E. Revillout, Le Concile de Nicee, 
d'apres les textes copies, 2 vols. (Paris, 1873-98); F. Haase, Die koptischen Quellen %um Confil 
von Nicaa (Paderborn, 1920; A. F. Burn, The Council of Niccea: A Memorial for its 16th 
Centenary (London, 1925); A. d’Ales, Ee dogme de Nicee (Paris, 1926); A. von Harnack, 
History of Dogma, IV, 1 ff.; Tixeront, History of Dogmas, III, 2 ff., 34-75. 


With the death of patriarch Alexander in 328, Athanasius succeeded him 
to a stormy reign during which he had to sustain the fighting with Arians 
and semi-Arians. He suffered exile from his see five times. Even before 
Constantine’s death, the imperial hero of Nicxa withdrew his support and 
exiled the champion of orthodoxy to Trier in 336. He was allowed to return 
only after the emperor’s death in 337. The second exile (339-46), also due to 
Arian intrigue, he spent in Rome, where he resided at the curia of Julius I 
and introduced Coptic monasticism into the Roman church. The importance 
of the third (356-61) and the fourth (362-63) exiles was due to the fact that 
Athanasius spent those years with the Fathers of the Desert, thereby giving 
the monastic movement the impetus of high office while gaining the monks’ 
total support against Arianism and schism. The fifth exile (365-66) was short, 
and the Emperor Valens found the patriarch’s return necessary to reconcile 
the angry Orthodox Alexandrine population. Athanasius was the image of a 
militant churchman throughout the whole of his career and although the 
cinders of Arianism were still smouldering at the hour of his death in 373, 
he did everything in his power to prepare for its total rout and final destruc¬ 
tion at the Council of Constantinople of 3 81. 1 Only then was the Nicene 
Creed safeguarded for all history. 

When one looks back upon the heroic and poignant years of the life of 
Athanasius, his wanderings across Europe and western Asia and the African 
deserts, the councils he attended, the conspiracies he had to weather, and the 
day-to-day onus of a prelate’s endless duties, one wonders how and where he 
found time to write books. 2 In his youth, he composed two apologetic treat¬ 
ises entitled On the Incarnation of the Divine Word and A Discourse Against the 
Greeks which may well support the thesis of his Coptic origin. His dogmatic 
works are too numerous to be considered here, but they were mostly on the 
subject of Arian heresy and include A History of the Arians , prepared between 
3 5 8 and 360 for the edification of the monks, as well as Against Apollinarins — 
two books in defence of the full humanity of Christ. In exegesis he wrote a 
Commentary on the Psalms, with an allegorical touch, and made a synoptic 
compendium of the Bible. His ascetic compositions are many, but the most 
famous of all is of course his Life of St Anthony. 

The problems of Christology, inaugurated at Nicaxi with a resounding din 
that filled Christendom, were to be resumed in the following century by 
another peer of Athanasius, a learned graduate of the monastery of St Macar¬ 
ius, already known as a centre of theological scholarship. He was the imper¬ 
ious Saint Cyril (412-44), surnamed the Great 3 and a man of unusual ability. 

1 Mansi, III, 521 ff.; Hefele, II, 1, 1-48. 

2 St Athanasius, Werke , ed. H. G. Opitz (Berlin and Leipzig, 1934); idem, Select Works 
and Letters, ed. A. Robertson (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, IV; London, 1892). 

3 Apart from the old ecclesiastical historians mentioned in previous notes as well as the 
conciliar collections of Mansi and Hefele, the works of Cyril himself are a primary source 


As soon as he succeeded Theophilus (385-412), his own uncle, he declared a 
spirited warfare on many fronts. At home, he had under his command an 
army of dedicated followers known as parabolani y that is, ‘those who dis¬ 
regarded their own lives’ in serving the cause of the Church. The patriarch 
inspired them with mortal hatred for the remnants of Neoplatonism in Alex¬ 
andria. Although there is no evidence to prove that he had a direct hand in 
Hypatia’s massacre in 415, there is hardly any doubt that the act was a by¬ 
product of Cyril’s war against Neoplatonists. The Jews were equally subjected 
to the same treatment by his monastic bodyguard. All this brought him into 
immediate strife with the imperial prefect Orestes, whose authority in Alex¬ 
andria was in jeopardy. The ill feeling between the patriarch and the prefect 
was further intensified by Orestes’ high regard for Hypatia. Outside Egypt, 
he attacked the Novatianist schism of a few isolated communities of Roman 
origin. Their founder, Novatian, 1 was a contemporary of the Decian persecu¬ 
tion of 249-50; and he initially supported the adoption of a lenient policy 
towards readmission of apostates. But in the course of complicated papal 
elections in which he was a losing candidate, Novatian reverted to a reigourist 
stand, became rival pope, and was martyred by Valerian in the persecution 
of 257-8. He and his scanty followers, although perfectly orthodox, were of 
course under sentence of excommunication until the fifth century, when Cyril 
aimed at their destruction. 

The greatest conflict of Cyril’s life, however, was with the formidable patri¬ 
arch of Constantinople, Nestorius, 2 over a new phase in Christology. The 
subject of Nestorianism has been treated elsewhere, and it may suffice here 

of his biography. The old edition of his works, ed. J. Aubert, 6 vols. (Paris, 1638), 
appears in Migne, P.G., LXVIII-LXXVII, with additions. P. E. Pusy also re-edited 
many of his works in 7 vols. (Oxford, 1868-77); and E. Schwartze edited many epistles by 
Cyril in the Acta Conciliorum CEcumenicorum (Berlin, 1922 ff.). See also Evetts, II, 166-179. 
Studies on the age of Cyril: LeNain de Tillemont, Memoires pour servir a Vhistoire ecclesi- 
astique des six premiers siecles , Vol. XIV (16 vols., 1693-1712); idem., History of Arians 
and Council of Nice, English tr. T. Deacon, 2 vols. (London, 1721); S. Kopallik, Cyrillus 
von Alexandrien, Eine Biographie nach den Quellen bearbeitet (Mainz, 1881); A. Rehrmann, 
Die Cbristologie des hi. Cyrillus von Alexandrien (Hildesheim, 1902); T. Weigl, Die Heilslehre 
des hi. Kyrill von Alexandrien, 2 vols. (Mainz, 1902); biographies: in Russian by T. Liastsenko 
(Kiev, 1913) and in Greek by C. Papadopoulos (Alexandria, 1933); LI. du Manoir de 
Juaye, Dogme et spirituality ehe% saint Cyrille d'Alexandrie (Paris, 1944); A. von Harnack, 
History of Dogma, Vol IV, pp. 164 ff.; Quasten, Patrology , III, 116-42; Kyrilliana, Etudes 
variees a Voccasion du XV e centenaire de saint Cyrille d’’Alexandrie, a.d. 444-1944 (Cairo, 
1947); R. M. Jones, pp. 104-30. 

1 Words ed. J. Jackson (London, 1728); also critical ed. in ‘Cambridge Patristic Texts’ 
by W. Yorke Fausset (Cambridge, 1909); English tr. H. Moore (London, 1919); A. d’Ales, 
Novatien, Etude sur la theologie romaine an milieu du Ill e siecle '(Paris, 1925); M. Kriebel, 
Studien giir alteren Entwickhing der abendlandischen Trinitatslehre bei Tertullian und Novatian 
(Marburg, 1932). 

2 See the chapter below on the Nestorian Church for sources; Quasten, Patrology , III, 


to point out that the use of the term Theotokos , or the Mother of God, was 
rejected by Nestorius in regard to the Virgin Mary, whom he wanted to be 
called Mother of Christ. This led to the inference of the dual nature of Jesus 
and to another round of metaphysical warfare between the rival patriarchs. 
Cyril wrote a corrective letter to Nestorius without avail. So he wrote to 
Emperor Theodosius II, to Empress Eudocia, and to the emperor’s sister 
Pulcheria. The imperial family was in fact displeased with these quarrels 
within the Church and spoke about the possibility of an oecumenical council 
to restore order. Cyril meanwhile addressed himself to Celestine, bishop of 
Rome, on Nestorian irregularity; and since Nestorius had received the Pelag¬ 
ian 1 enemies of Celestine with honour, the Roman bishop was more willing 
to lend ear to Cyril against the patriarch of Constantinople. Celestine readily 
condemned Nestorianism in council at Rome, while Cyril hurled twelve 
anathemas against Nestorius from Alexandria. Nestorius answered by casting 
twelve counter-anathemas at his adversary. The stage was again set for another 
oecumenical council, this time at Ephesus in 431, 2 and the summons was 
issued jointly by Theodosius II in the East and Valentinian III in the West. 

This was the third oecumenical council, the other two being Nicaea (325) 
and Constantinople (381). Nestorius arrived at Ephesus with sixteen bishops 
and an armed bodyguard headed by no less a personality than the commander 
of the imperial guard. Cyril came by sea with fifty bishops and an army of 
devotees, retainers and a few monks, who were said to have included the 
great Shenute in their number, though this report is unconfirmed and rather 
doubtful. On Cyril’s side was Memnon, bishop of Ephesus, who mustered 
forty suffragans from Asia and twelve from Pamphilia. Celestine I of Rome 
sent two bishops and a priest who upheld Cyril’s cause. With that host of 
allies, Cyril decided to inaugurate the session, while Nestorius abstained from 
attending because he still awaited the Antiochene contingent under his old 
comrade Bishop John. Two hundred bishops then unanimously condemned 
and anathematized Nestorius. A little later, on the arrival of Bishop John of 
Antioch with forty-two bishops, Nestorius held his own rival-council which 
also unanimously deposed and anathematized both Cyril and Memnon. The 
two parties rushed their verdicts to the emperor, who unwittingly signed both 
edicts and all the leaders found themselves under arrest. After much intrigue, 
the Cyrillian party was freed, Nestorius imprisoned at his old cloister, and 
for the next two years the exchange of dispatches continued between the 

1 The Pelagian heresy is so named after its originator, Pelagius, of British or Irish 
origin. Pelagius expounded the view that man was his own instrument of salvation, 
irrespective of divine grace. He visited Rome in the reign of Bishop Anastasius (399-401 
a.d.). Later, he escaped to Africa when Rome fell to Alaric in 410. 

2 E. Schwartze, Acta Conciliornm (JUcumenicortwi , Vol. I (Berlin and Leipzig, 1927) pts. 
I-V (Concilium Universale Ephcscnum); Mansi, IV, 569 ff.; Hcfele, II, pt. i, 219 ff.; 
Chrystal, I, pt. ii, and II—III (Ephesus). 


hostile churches. Then at last a rapprochement was reached, and Nestorius was 
left a solitary victim to face a grim fate. The year 433 saw Nestorius a sorry 
figure, manhandled in his forced retirement, then carried into exile first to 
Petra then to the oasis of the western desert, where probably he died in 
oblivion and tragedy after the year 439. Cyril was at the height of his own 
power in that year. 

Cyril left behind him a tremendous number of works in theology, exegesis, 
homiletics and apologetics. As a meticulous theologian he seems, however, 
to have devoted more attention to the essence of an argument than to the 
external elegance of style. Yet it must be noted that his almost indiscriminate 
use of the words physis and hypostasis 1 led to the Chalcedonian confusion 
which resulted in the establishment of the so-called ‘Monophysite’ doctrine. 
Cyril’s apology against the Emperor Julian the Apostate is a document of 
historical interest. Elis numerous epistles are documents of importance for 
the ecclesiastical historian. His twenty-nine Paschal Homilies defined the date 
ot Easter. On the whole, his theology was regarded by all future sects as the 
key to orthodoxy, though subsequent theologians differed on its interpreta¬ 
tion. At the time of his death, the Alexandrine Church occupied the position 
of undisputed leadership in the whole Christian world. 

1 Literally in Greek means ‘substance’, also ‘person’ more frequently used in Latin. 
It was the ambiguity between the two words that led to confusion. 


Missionary Enterprise 

From its very beginning, Christianity had been a missionary religion; and the 
early Coptic converts were not behind other nations in their evangelizing 
labours. Although the absence of contemporary documentary material 
limits our knowledge of the role they played in this field, there is unmistak¬ 
able evidence that they spread the faith in every direction beyond their 
geographical frontiers. Since Ptolemaic times, Alexandria had been the cross¬ 
roads of the ancient world. As a trade centre, it was frequented by merchants 
from all nations, and its Catechetical School was attended by theological 
scholars from most Christian communities. Thus the natives of Egypt be¬ 
came acquainted with men of every race, and the ascetic sons of the Nile 
found all doors opened to them. In fact, there is reason to believe that the 
Christian emissaries from Egypt reached all three continents known to 
Christian antiquity, though Africa was the field in which their propagation 
of the faith was most successful. 

It is not inconceivable that Coptic relations with North Africa, notably 
with Cyrenaica or the Pentapolis, took place with the introduction of 
Christianity. In his visitations from Alexandria, St Mark must have been 
accompanied to the Pentapolis by Alexandrine helpers. Educationally, the 
natives of the Pentapolis looked towards Egypt. Synesius (ca. 570-414), 1 
bishop of Ptolemais, received his instruction at Alexandria in both the 
Catechetical School and the Museion, and he entertained a great deal of 
reverence and affection for Hypatia, the last of the pagan Neoplatonists, 
whose classes he had attended. Synesius was raised to the episcopate by 
Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, in 410. Since the Council of Nicxa in 
325, Cyrenaica had been recognized as an ecclesiastical province to the see of 

1 H. I. Marrou, ‘Synesius of Cyrene and Alexandrian Neoplatonism’, in The Conflict 
between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century , cd. A. Momigliano (Oxford, 1963), 
pp. 126-50; Synesius of Cyrene, Fetters , English tr. A. Fitzgerald (Oxford, 1926); idem. 
Essays and Hymns, 2 vols. (London, 1930). For biographies of Synesius, sec C. Lacombradc 
(Paris, 1951), G. Grutzmachcr (Leipzig, 1913), W. S. Crawford (London, 1901), J. C. 
Pando (Washington, 1940). 



Alexandria, in accordance with the ruling of the Nicaean Fathers. The pat¬ 
riarch of the Coptic Church to this day includes the Pentapolis in his title as 
an area within his jurisdiction. It is doubtful, however, whether Coptic in¬ 
fluence extended further west in North Africa, where Carthage and Rome 
held greater sway. 

The area where Egyptian Christianity had its most direct impact was 
probably in the upper valley of the Nile, by the southern gate of Egypt at 
Syene (modern Aswan). The ancient Egyptians had known those parts since 
the eighteenth dynasty, some fifteen hundred years before Christ, and their 
magnificent temples and monuments are spread all over Nubia. Two factors 
helped in the steady flow of Christian missionaries south of Syene. First, the 
persecutions gave the initial incentive to Christians to flee from the face of 
their oppressors to the oases of the western desert and beyond the first 
cataract into Nubia. Secondly, the rise of ascetic monasticism furnished the 
new religion with pious emigrants who penetrated the southern regions as 
soldiers of Christ. Recent archaeological excavations in the lower Sudan prove 
that Christianity had struck root in those distant regions by the fourth 
century. 1 In the fifth century, good relations are recorded between the 
monastic order of the great St Shenute and the Nubian and Baga tribes of 
the south. At the beginning of the sixth century, there was a certain Bishop 
Theodore of Phike, apparently a Christian substitute to the Isis high priest¬ 
hood established on that island from Roman times. In the same century, 
Justinian (527-65) issued a command that all the pagan tribes on the peri¬ 
phery of the Byzantine empire should be converted to Christianity. The 
imperial order accelerated a process already taking place in Nubia, though as 
a consequence, the monophysite Copts had to combat paganism and the 
Chalcedonian profession of faith at one and the same time. It would appear 
that the Coptic victory was complete by 5 59, and through the sympathy and 
connivance of Empress Theodora, and in defiance to court injunctions, a 
monophysite bishop, Longinus, 2 was consecrated for the see of Napata, 
capital of the Nubian kingdom. The ancient temples were progressively trans¬ 
formed into Christian churches, and new churches were constructed. 
Furthermore, monasticism was introduced among the Nubians, who founded 
numerous monasteries on the edge of the valley. The most outstanding 
example is that of St Simeon, which stood at a small distance across the Nile 

1 D. Dunham, ‘Romano-Coptic Egypt and the Culture of Meroe’, in Coptic Egypt 
(Brooklyn, N.Y., 1944), pp. 31-3; C. P. Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa, 

4 vols. (London, 1948-58), I, 46-9; S. Clarke, Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley 
(Oxford, 1912). 

2 He appears to be the true apostle of Nubian Christianity, though it is said that he was 
preceded by another named Julian, who seems to have converted the king and the court of 
the tribe of the Nobadas. C. P. Groves, I, 49-50; Zaher Riad, Kanisat al-Iskandariyah fi 
Ifriqiyah {The Church of Alexandria in Africa ), (in Arabic; Cairo, 1962), 159-65. 


from modern Aswan. Though raided by Saladin’s Islamic armies in the year 
1172, its imposing ruins are still a testimony of architectural, artistic and 
spiritual solidity. 

Even more romantic than the conversion of the Nubian kingdom to 
Christianity in the late antiquity, was that of the more distant and isolated 
kingdom of Abyssinia. According to an apocryphal tradition, the Ethiopian 
court at Axum had long been acquainted with monotheism. The story of the 
journey of the Queen of Sheba 1 to the court of King Solomon in the tenth 
century b.c., their marriage, and the subsequent birth of Menelik I of 
Ethiopia, though probably legendary, has given the Ethiopian monarch the 
title ‘Lion of Judah’. 2 Menelik’s visit to his father in Jerusalem, and his return 
with the Ark of the Covenant, said to be enshrined in the cathedral of Axum, 
belongs to the same tale. 3 The next contact with monotheism occurred 
when the eunuch in the service of ‘Condace, Queen of the Ethiopians’, en¬ 
countered the Apostle Philip on his return from Jerusalem by way of Gaza. 4 
Here, however, the Nubian queen is confused with the Ethiopian. Historic 
evidence shows that Ethiopia remained pagan until the fourth century a.d. 
when the authentic evangelization of the kingdom took place. Two brothers, 
Frumentius and Aedesius, residents of Tyre but originally from Alexandria, 
boarded a trading ship going to India and were shipwrecked on the Red Sea 
coast near Abyssinia. They were picked up by the men of the Ethiopian 
monarch, probably Ella Amida, 5 who took them into his service. Aedesius 
became his cup-bearer, and Frumentius his secretary and tutor to the young 
crown prince, Aeizanas (Ezana), to whom he doubtless gave a Christian 
education. When Aeizanas became king, he, together with his courtiers and 
retainers were converted, and Christianity was declared the official religion of 
the state. Afterwards Aedesius was allowed to return to Tyre, while Frumen¬ 
tius went to Alexandria to convey’the news to the Patriarch Athanasius and 
to plead with him to consecrate a special bishop to watch over the spiritual 
welfare of those distant Christians. The meeting with Athanasius was pre¬ 
sumably between 341 and 346.° The patriarch appointed Frumentius himself 

1 Meaning ‘Queen of the South’. 

2 The lion is still the arms of the kings of Ethiopia. The emperor always keeps a lion 
at the palace entrance. 

3 The story is derived from a fourteenth century MS., said to have been translated 

from an Arabic version of an original Coptic in Egypt, and promoted by the Zague 
dynasty, which ascended the throne in 1270 a.d., in an attempt to establish the continuity 
of the Solomonian line in Ethiopia. A. H. M. Jones and E. Munroe, A History of Ethiopia 
(Oxford, i960), pp. 10-21; J. Doressc, Ethiopia , English tr. Elsa Coult (London, 1959), 
pp. 13 ff. 4 Acts of the Apostles viii, 26-40. 

5 His reign was about the years 320 and 325 a.d. Archaeological evidence shows his 
inscriptions to retain the pagan character, whereas his son’s refer to a monotheistic deity. 
Further, numismatic evidence is decisive. Early coins of Aeizanas’ reign bear the pagan 
symbols, later replaced by a Cross. Jones and Monroe, pp. 26-31; Doresse, p. 30. 

6 Doresse, p. 62. 

H E C—C 


under the name of Anba. SaJama., that is, c thc father of peace*. 1 The new bishop 
of Axum finally returned to his see in or before 356, no doubt accompanied 
b\ presbyters to help in the evangelization of the kingdom and the establish¬ 
ment of churches in the country. 2 In 356 the Emperor Constantius, an 
Arian, wrote to Aeizanas to withdraw the Orthodox Frumentius, but with¬ 
out avail. After the Council of Chalcedon in 45 U the Ethiopians adhered to 
the Coptic profession. 

The winning of Ethiopia for the Gospel must have been regarded as one 
of the most spectacular events of the century and a crowning to the labours 
of the Copts in Africa. 3 Further east, the Copts emerged in the missionary 
field in Asia, though of course on a more modest scale. It is very difficult to 
generalize on the basis of isolated instances, but there is no doubt that the 
Egyptians moved freely to many parts of Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia, 
Caesarea and to some extent Arabia. Origen, it will be remembered, was in¬ 
vited to Bostra to arbitrate in doctrinal differences. Mar Augin of Clysma 
(the modern Suez) was the founder of monasticism in Mesopotamia and the 
Persian empire, making a considerable impact on both Syrian and Assyrian 
Christianity. 4 As early as the second century the great Pantasnus (about 190), 
who presided over the Catechetical School of Alexandria, was chosen by 
Demetrius I to preach the Gospel in India. 5 After accomplishing his mission, 
he visited Arabia Felix (the modern Yemen) where he must have continued 
his missionary enterprise. Unfortunately our information on this fascinating 
subject is extremely limited. In the sixth century there was a further Indian 
adventure by another Alexandrine, Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6 who later be¬ 
came a monk and left an account of his travels. He speaks of Christian com¬ 
munities with their own bishops on the Persian Gulf, the existence of 

1 Called Abuna (Our Father), also Casate Berhan Saldma (Revealer of Light). 

2 The Abyssinian tradition mentions Nine Saints. Groves, I, 53; Doresse, p. 81. 

3 It is interesting to note that there is a growing tendency among present-day African 
Christians towards affiliation with the Coptic Church. The Arab World , No. no (30 July 
1962), p. 53, published an article entitled ‘African Christians Returning to Church which 
Originated in Africa , in which Mr S. K. Kassassa, of Kampala (Uganda), is reported to 
have asked (as early as 1958) permission for his group to join the Coptic Church and to 
send students to the Coptic Ecclesiastical College. Father Makary El-Souriani (now Bishop 
Samuel) was sent to Kenya and Uganda in 1961 to make an enquiry and report to Pope 
Kirollos VI. When interviewed on this, the pope replied: ‘I have found out that there are 
nearly five million Christians in Uganda and several millions in the neighbouring countries, 

the majority of whom would like to join the Coptic Church.’ How realistic this is, remains 
to be seen. 

4 See sections below dealing with Jacobite and Nestorian monasticism. 

The geographical situation of India was rather confused in those days with Southern 
Arabia and Abyssinia, but it is quite possible that Pantasnus reached India proper. On his 
return journey, Eusebius (His/. Ecoles., V, 10—11) tells us, he recovered the original 
Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew which had been brought to the East by the Apostle 

6 Critical edition of his Christian Topography by E. O. Winstedt (Cambridge, 1909). 


Christians in the island of Socotra, and the yet more numerous Christians of 
St Thomas in India. He is reputed to be one of the first to travel to Ceylon. 

The role of the Copts in Europe may be illustrated from the first two exiles 
of the great Alexandrine patriarch, Athanasius. The first exile began in Con¬ 
stantinople and ended in Trier, where the saint spent parts of 336 and 337, 
and it is difficult to believe that he did not preach during all that time in his 
new environment. Most of the second exile, from 339 to 346, was at the 
Roman curia as the guest of Julius I. Apart from establishing good relations 
between Alexandria and Rome, Athanasius carried out some missionary 
work by introducing into Roman religious life the highly developed monastic 
rule of the Fathers of the Egyptian deserts. This was an important event in 
view of the magnitude of the contributions of the rising monastic orders in 
the preservation of culture, and in the progress of European civilization. 1 

In those days the stream of pilgrims who came from the west to visit the 
Egyptian wilderness with its hermits and monks included many who may 
well be regarded as missionaries of Coptic religious culture, since they trans¬ 
planted Coptic teachings to their native countries. The most eminent of 
these was John Cassian (ca. 360-435), a native of southern Gaul and the son of 
rich parents who gave him a good education. He and an older friend named 
Germanus decided to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in 
Bethlehem they took monastic vows. Then they went to Egypt, where they 
spent seven years visiting the solitaries and holy men of the wilderness of 
Scetis in the Nitrean valley as well as the Thebaid during the fourth century. 
It was on that occasion that John Cassian collected the material for his two 
famous works, the Institutes 2 and the Conferences . 3 These books deal with the 
life and habits of the Egyptian monks as well as their wisdom and institutions, 
and both were widely read in mediaeval Europe. St Benedict of Nursia used 
them when he codified his rule in the sixth century. After spending some 
time with St John Chrysostom in Constantinople on his return journey, John 
Cassian was ordained priest, probably in Rome, before settling down in the 
neighbourhood of Marseilles, where he has been accredited with the intro¬ 
duction of Egyptian monasticism into Gaul. At Marseilles, above the shrine 
of St Victor, who was martyred by the Emperor Maximian (286-305) in 
the last Christian persecution, John Cassian founded a monastery and a 
nunnery on the model of the Ccenobia, which he had witnessed in Egypt. 4 In 

1 See above notes pp. 39 ff. in previous chapter on Athanasius. 

2 De institutis ccenobiorum et de octo principalium vitiorum remediis libri XII. 

3 Collationes Patum, XXIV; both works tr. into English by E. C. S. Gibson in the Niccne 
and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. 2, Vol. XI (1894), 161-641. Cassian wrote another less 
important work against Nestorius entitled De Incarnacione Domini. 

4 H. I. Marrou, ‘J ean Cassien a Marseille’, in Revue du Moyen Age Latin, I (1945), 5-26; 
O. Chadwick , John Cassian, A Study in Primitive Monasticism (Cambridge, 1950); L. Cristini, 
Jean Cassien, ou ta spirituality du desert, 2 vols. (Paris, 1946); A. Hoch, Die Lebre des Johannes 
Cassianus von Natur und Gnade (Freiburg, 1896). 


the catacombs below the present day fort of St Victor, will be found numer¬ 
ous archeological remains, including sarcophagi with stone carvings and 
sculpture which betray in animal and plant motifs the direct influence of 
early Coptic art. On the island of St Honorat, off the coast at Cannes, there is 
an old monastery where the monks explain to visitors that they use the rule 
of St Pachomius of the Thebaid. 

Wherever the Roman legions went, they were apparently followed by 
Christian missionaries. To Switzerland a mission from Thebes, according to 
local legend or tradition, arrived in the year 285 with the Theban legion. It 
was led by St Mauritius, who seems to have earned martyrdom for refusing 
to sacrifice to the heathen gods. His statue stands today in one of the public 
squares of St Moritz, and his body was enshrined in what later became the 
chapel of an abbey of Augustinian canons at Saint Maurice in Valais. His 
companions, a legionary named Felix, his sister Regula and a third called 
Exuperantius, hid themselves in the dreary wastes of the land of Glarus, and 
ultimately reached the Lake of Zurich, where they baptized converts until 
they were seized by the emperor’s men and led before Decius, the Roman 
governor of the region. On refusing to sacrifice to the gods they were tor¬ 
tured. Legend says that as they were beheaded a voice from heaven called to 
them: ‘Arise, for the angels shall take you to Paradise and set upon your heads 
the martyr’s crown.’ Thus the bodies arose, and, taking their heads in their 
hands, walked forty ells 1 uphill to a prepared ditch, where they slept under¬ 
neath what is now the crypt of the Zurich Gross punster. On the spot of their 
martyrdom arose the \Vasserkirche . The Yraumunster cloister across the Lim- 
mat River has eight famous mediaeval frescoes representing every stage of 
their story. The three headless saints with heads in hand are the subject of 
the arms of the city of Zurich. A parallel story with some variation has been 
recounted about the town of Solothurn, and the name of St Victor (the 
Coptic Boktor ) is mentioned as its hero. 

There is little doubt that the Coptic missionaries reached as far as the 
British Isles on the edge of mediaeval Europe. Long before the coming in 597 
of St Augustine of Canterbury, Christianity had been introduced amongst 
the Britons. The eminent historian Stanley Lane-Poole says: ‘We do not yet 
know how much we in the British Isles owe to these remote hermits. It is 
more than probable that to them we are indebted for the first preaching of 
the Gospel in England, where, till the coming of Augustine, the Egyptian 
monastic rule prevailed. But more important is the belief that Irish Christ¬ 
ianity, the great civilizing agent of the early Middle Ages among the 
northern nations, was the child of the Egyptian Church. Seven Egyptian 
monks are buried at Disert Uldith, and there is much in the ceremonies and 

1 A measure of length varying in different countries but approximately averaging one 
yard or a little more. 


architecture of Ireland in the earliest time that reminds one of still earlier 
Christian remains in Egypt. Every one knows that the handicraft of the 
Irish monks in the ninth and tenth centuries far excelled anything that could 
be found elsewhere in Europe; and if the Byzantine-looking decoration of 
their splendid gold and silver work, and their unrivalled illuminations, can 
be traced to the influence of Egyptian missionaries, we have more to thank 
the Copts for than has been imagined/ 1 

Even when we review Coptic heresies and heretics, it behoves us to con¬ 
sider how these ardent sons of the Nile, when forbidden from practising the 
beliefs of their sects within the Pax Romana, crossed the frontiers of the 
empire to the unknown realms of the barbarians, where they freely preached 
Christianity in accordance with their convictions. Perhaps the most striking 
feature in the history of the barbarians as they descended on the Roman 
Empire was the spread of Arianism in their midst. It is true that the Goths, 
Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians and Lombards must have had their 
apostles of Arian Christianity. Perhaps the best-known is Ulphilas (ca. 311-83), 
apostle to the Goths, who was probably of Cappadocian birth but who knew 
their language as well as Greek and translated the Bible into the Gothic 
tongue for the first time. But Arianism, it must be remembered, was purely 
an Alexandrine creation, and its founder was the heresiarch Arius, a Libyan 
native of Alexandria. It is only logical to assume that the followers of Arius 
or their disciples were responsible for the spread of that heresy from Egypt 
to the Germanic and barbarian tribes beyond the Danube and Rhine. 2 

(Ecumenical Movement 

Few topics in religious history have aroused such endless and ardent con¬ 
troversy as the oecumenical movement, beginning with Nicaea in 325 and 

1 Cairo - Sketches of its History , Monuments and Social Fife (London, 1898), pp. 203-4. 
Bishop Samuel of the Coptic Church, who visited that area, tells me that the ‘Book of 
Leinster’ in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, contains a litany which says ‘Seven Egyptian 
monks in Disert Ullaigh, I invoke unto my aid through Jesus Christ.’ Three other MSS. 
include similar supplications, and a fourth contains a guide to Irish pilgrims to the desert 
of Scetis in the Nitrean Valley. He further assures me that one MS. placed the apostolic 
sees in the following order: Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. It would be 
interesting systematically to carry the enquiry further. The initials and miniatures still 
show the influence of Coptic art on Irish art; see F. S. Henry, Irish Art in the Christian 
Period (London, 1939). Kenneth Mildcnbergcr, ‘Unity of Cynewulf’s Christ in the Light 
of Iconography’, in Speculum , XXIII, no. 3 (July, 1948), 426-32, reveals the influence of 
Coptic iconography on Northumbrian monastic art and religious culture, and accidentally 
provides us with another milestone in construing the Egyptian missionary enterprise in 
Ireland and Britain, which is the only explanation to his interesting thesis. 

2 E. A. Thompson, ‘Christianity and the Northern Barbarians’, in The Conflict between 
Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century , pp. 56-78. 


ending with Chalcedon in 451. The attempt to eradicate heresy and doctrinal 
differences from the various centres of Christianity was accomplished in the 
first three councils, of Nicasa (325), Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431). 
The formulation of the Nicasan Creed, that enduring charter of the faith, 
became universally accepted, and the christological definition and relation of 
the divine and human natures in the person of Jesus by Cyril the Great was 
sanctioned at Ephesus. From the standpoint of a historian of the Coptic 
Church, the important feature of those councils was the fact that they were 
dominated by the spiritual and intellectual leadership of Alexandria. Home 
of the Catechetical School and chief centre of theological discourse, Alex¬ 
andria proved to be the fountain-head of Christian scholarship and subse¬ 
quently of Christian authority. The position imparted by that pre-eminence 
gave the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church enormous power both within 
their own country and in the Christian world at large. They became what has 
been ingeniously described as ‘the pharaohs 1 of the Church’, a status which 
alarmed the bishops of Rome and Constantinople. It was at this point that 
the heritage of Athanasius and Cyril fell into the hands of Dioscorus, who 
was not their equal in tact and diplomacy. 

The increasing doctrinal differences between East and West were limited 
to a mere interpretation of the degree of unity of the divine and human 
natures in the person of Christ. As a reaction to Nestorianism, Eutyches 
(ca. 378-454), a pious archimandrite of a Greek monastery in Constantinople, 
espoused the view of the unity of the two natures in one solely divine nature 
since the Incarnation. Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, immediately ex¬ 
communicated and deposed him in a local synod. But Eutyches had in¬ 
fluence in the imperial palace through a highly placed eunuch named 
Chrysaphius, who succeeded in persuading Theodosius II to call a general 
council to reconsider his case under the leadership of Dioscorus. Dioscorus 
accepted the invitation, and the second meeting at Ephesus 2 took place in 
449. It is fitting here to give up the Coptic view of the council’s transactions. 
Representatives of Rome, Antioch, Constantinople and most of the other 
Christian bishoprics of both East and West in addition to the Egyptian 
delegation of ten bishops converged on Ephesus in response to an imperial 
request. Eutyches was summoned to speak for himself. Moving from his 
earlier position of incorporating the human entirely in the divine nature, he 
proclaimed the Nicsean Creed and the formula of St Cyril, both recognized as 
the orthodox doctrine. Thus he was acquitted and reinstated in his former 
position by the council. The result of the verdict was the deposition of 
Bishop Flavian and his supporters and their abuse by the imperial guard, 
probably through the influence of Chrysaphius. 

1 Term used by some historians; see, for example. Hardy, pp. 79 fl. 

2 Mansi, VI, 503 ff.; Hcfele, II, pt. 1, 555 fl. 


This further step in the assertion of Alexandrian supremacy, perhaps in¬ 
discreetly flaunted by Dioscorus, incurred the abusive description of the 
whole meeting as a 'Latrocinium (‘highway robbery’) in a letter sent by Pope 
Leo to the emperor. Dioscorus was probably unwise to overlook the ‘Tome 
of Leo’, which the Roman delegates brought with them. However, it must be 
remembered that the change of emperors at this very moment worked 
miracles. The death of Theodosius II and the succession of Marcian (450-7) 
and his wife Pulcheria, a former nun and sister of the deceased emperor, 
reversed the imperial ecclesiastical policy. The Council of Chalcedon 1 was 
consequently summoned in 451, not to discuss the unity or duality of the 
natures of Christ, but to try Dioscorus for what was regarded as a conciliatory 
attitude toward the initial Eutychian thesis, in spite of the legality of the 
Ephesian procedure and the adherencce of the Copts to Cyril’s formula of 
the unity of the two natures. Politics played a prominent part in regard to 
the expanding and menacing influence of Alexandria, and imperial authority 
brought together in 451 more than six hundred bishops at Chalcedon, across 
the Bosphorus from Constantinople. The Tome of Leo was read, Dioscorus 
was summarily condemned even without a hearing, then deposed and in 454 
exiled to the island of Gangra in Paphlagonia. Even the bishops who had 
signed the verdict of the second Council of Ephesus were constrained to 
sanction the Chalcedonian decision, save for the Copts, who abstained in 
fear of their congregations on their return home. 

The council then issued twenty-eight canons, the last of which was the 
most significant, since it decreed ‘that the city which was honoured with the 
sovereignty and the senate, and which enjoyed equal privileges with the elder 
royal Rome, should also be magnified, like her, in ecclesiastical matters, and 
be second after her’. 2 Thus the sixth canon of Nicxa which insisted on ‘the 
preservation of the rights and privileges of the bishops of Alexandria, 
Antioch, and other provinces’, 3 was abrogated in the favour of Constan¬ 

Dealing with the oecumenical movement William Worrell points out: 
‘The See [of Alexandria] was the most important in the Church, as the city 
was the most important in the whole of the East. To the prestige of ancient 
Egypt and Hellenistic Alexandria were added the reputation for Christian 
learning and the power of leadership.’ 4 As to Chalcedon, he adds: ‘It was 

1 Schwartze, II (Concilium universale Chalccdonense); Mansi, VI, 528 ff.; Hefcle, II, 
pt. 2, 649 ff.; R. V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon (London, 1953); A. Grillmcicr and H. 
Bacht, Das Konsfl von Chalcedon , 3 vols. (Wurzburg, 1951-4); Tixeront, III, 76-123. 

2 E. H. Landon, A Manual of Councils of the Holy Catholic Church, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 
1909), Vol. I, p. 197. This was presumably rejected by the Catholic delegates, and the pope 
later did not sanction so great an advancement for Constantinople; A. Fortescue, Lesser 
Eastern Churches , pp. 180-1. 

3 Landon, I, p. 408. 

4 A Short Account of the Copts (Michigan, 1945), p. 17. 


here that the Egyptian church lost its leadership. The action taken at 
Chalcedon was chiefly due to Pope Leo I (440-61). The Alexandrines were 
used to having their way, and would not be governed by the Council. 
Native Egypt was united behind the Patriarch of Alexandria. National feel¬ 
ings were involved. Thus the national church of Egypt began.’ 1 

The Copts believe 2 that behind the triumph of the West was a great deal 
of political manoeuvring and personal interest. As Rome leaned toward the 
two natures, the Nestorian bishops, including the Antiochenes, were won 
over. The relatively new see of Constantinople, supported by the emperor 
for obvious reasons, assumed the next place to Rome by humiliating 
Dioscorus. To this day the Copts remember the tragedy of Chalcedon with 
acrimony, and protest against the assumption that they are Eutychians; 
many of their prelates, old and new, reject the basic elements of Eutychianism 
as much as they attack the doctrines of Nestorianism. They never denied the 
existence of the two natures, but insisted on their unity. It is difficult even to 
see the shadowy differences between the varied interpretations of Cyril’s 
accepted authority. The Copts deny the cecumenicity of Chalcedon and all 
subsequent councils. They reject the Chalcedonian profession as a breach of 
faith contrary to the spirit of the Nicsean Creed and the decisions of Ephesus. 
They never called themselves ‘monophysite’, a spiteful term more fitting for 
Eutychianism which the Greeks and Romans invented for the humiliation of 
the Copts and their allies, the Jacobites, the Ethiopians and the Armenians. 
Strangely enough, the Copts refrained from fighting that novel epithet, but 
seemed rather ready to accept it as a sign of distinction from the ‘diophysite’ 

The net result of the decisions taken at Chalcedon was irreparable schism. 
And since the Copts hold that they had never been subject to Rome, but only 
parallel, the terms ‘schismatic’ and ‘dissident’, often used by the Roman 
Catholic historians to describe the sister Coptic church, are repudiated by the 
so-called ‘monophysites’ as objectionable allegations. To the Coptic mind, 
the apostolic sees of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome were of equal status, and 
as such had all lived in perfect harmony and sustained mutual regard toward 
each other, even in the days when Alexandria was beyond a shadow of doubt 

If Chalcedon had another result beyond schism, this was to accelerate the 
nascent Egyptian nationalism within the pale of the native Coptic Church. 
Contemporary with the oecumenical movement was the spreading of the 
monastic rule within Egypt and beyond its frontiers. Monasticism, a purely 

1 Op. cit., p. 18. 

2 The Coptic view is expressed in a work in Arabic on ‘The Age of Councils’ published 
by Kirollos al-Antuni (Cairo, 1952), then a monk of the Monastery of St Antony near the 
Red Sea and now assuming the name of Basileus, Coptic archbishop of Jerusalem. 


Egyptian creation with world potential, proved in the century after Chalce- 
don to be a potent factor fanning the flame of nationalism. 

Of both nationalism and monasticism in the social and religious life of 
the Copts, more must be said. It would however be wrong to end this sad 
chapter in the story of Christian disunity on these depressing notes, when 
two august modern prelates of the Roman Catholic Church, John XXIII 
and Paul VI, have openly promoted the cause of reconciliation of the churches 
of Eastern Christendom in the present Vatican Council. Pope Paul’s address 
of 30 September 1963 to the second Vatican Council seems to arouse 
greater expectations of reunion of the sister churches than anything since 
Chalcedon. Indeed, if a Paul VI had been present at Chalcedon in 451, the 
stream of history might have been deflected into the direction of bridging 
rather than unbridging gaps. His impressive appearance in the Council, with 
the episcopal mitre rather than the papal tiara, is a significant act of humility 
that impels admiration and recalls to mind the constitution of primitive 
apostolic churches, where the Episcopus Romatiorum stood before the throne 
of Jesus Christ in line with the other bishops of the great cities of antiquity. 

Monastic Rule 

Coptic monasticism 1 was truly the gift of Egypt to Christendom. Like all 
movements of universal importance, that religious system evolved over a 
period of time and in successive stages. From its modest beginnings on the 
edge of the desert, it developed into a way of life the wonder of Christian 
antiquity. Most writers ascribe the origins of monasticism to St Antony 
(ca. 251-356), who is supposed to have been the first to retire to the eastern 
desert of Middle Egypt and whose fame was spread by his famous biography 
written by St Athanasius. Without minimizing the place of Antony in the 
story of monachism, there is reason to believe that organized flights to the 

1 For the sources and general history of Coptic monasticism until the year 1950, sec 
Kammercr’s Coptic bibliography , nos. 2476-2569, also nos. 1202-1340, 1620, 2674-75, and 
3108. Special reference to particular studies will be made in the following notes with 
regard to material subsequent to 1950. Most important Arabic source cd. and tr. by 13 . T. A. 
Evetts, The Churches and Monasteries of Eg)pt and Some Neighbouring Countries , attributed to 
Abu Saleh the Armenian (Oxford, 1895). A. M. J. Festugicrc, Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 
(Subsidia hagiographica No. 34; Brussels, 1961). Of general interest is the selection made 
by R. Draguct, Les peres du desert (Paris, 1949), which superseded Helen Waddell, The 
Desert Fathers (London, 1936). For origins see W. H. Mackean, Christian Monasticism in 
Egypt to the Close of the Fourth Century (London, 1920); J. M. L. Bcsse, Les Moines d’Orient 
anterieurs an Concile de Chalcedoine (Paris, 1900); Jules Leroy, Moines et monasteres du Troche- 
Orient (Paris, 1958), pp. 32-62; K. Heussi, Der Ursprung des Monchtums (Tubingen, 1936); 
J. Bremond, Les peres du desert, 2 vols. (Paris, 1927); Quastcn, Patrology , Vol. Ill, pp. 
146-89; Otto F. A. Meinardus, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts (Cairo, 1961). 


desert must have been coterminous with the age of persecution. An instance 
is cited in the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-61), when a certain 
Erontonius decided to reject the world and was able to persuade seventy 
others to follow him to the Nitrean desert. It is said that St Antony himself, 
as he went deeper and deeper into the eastern desert around the middle of the 
fourth century, discovered by accident St Paul the Hermit, aged 113 years 
and about to die. Since his early youth, he had found the perfect life in the 
solitude of the desert. We must assume that he was one among many others 

Nevertheless the first definable stage in the genesis of Coptic monasticism 
may be described as ‘Antonian monachism’, whereby a pious recluse or 
anchorite took to a solitary life of asceticism and austerity, torturing his body 
in order to save his soul. The example of St Antony was the most famous, 
though by no means the only one of his age. An orphan of wealthy Christian 
parentage from the village of Coma, 1 in the territorial division of Heracleo- 
polis, at the age of twenty, he renounced the world, selling his estate and 
distributing the proceeds to the poor, 2 keeping back only what was necessary 
for the subsistence of a younger sister, whom he entrusted to a community 
of virgins before crossing the Nile to the eastern desert. Apparently he re¬ 
ceived his first lessons in ascetic devotion from other hermits in the neigh¬ 
bouring desert caves and discarded ancient tombs overlooking the valley. 
For well-nigh eighty-five years he kept pushing further and further into the 
desert, and his austerities grew greater, his fasts longer, his combats with the 
demons more spectacular, according to the reports of his biographer 3 and in 
keeping with the spirit of the times. A true ‘athlete of Christ’ his fame spread 
far and wide, and Athanasius himself came to sit at his feet, while the Em¬ 
peror Constantine wrote asking for his spiritual support. Antony descended 
from his cave overlooking the Pved Sea into the valley only on two occasions 
- once in 311 to fortify the faithful during the last persecution of Maxi¬ 
minus, and again in 338, to uphold the Athanasian cause against the seething 
remnants of Arianism. 

Fame brought Antony many disciples who sought his spiritual guidance, 

1 District of Bush in the province of Beni Suef. 

2 On hearing in church the words of the Gospel of St Matthew (xix, 21): ‘Sell that thou 
hast . . .* 

3 Athanasius, Vita Sancti Antonii (Migne, P.G. XXVI, 835-976) - numerous editions, 
translations and selections in various languages, considered spurious by H. Weingarten 
(‘Der Ursprung des Monchtums in nachconstantinischen Zeitalter’, in Zeitschrift fur 
Kirchengeschichte (Gotha, 1877), Vol. I, pp. 1-35 and 545-74, but authenticity since estab¬ 
lished by A. Eichhorn, Athanasii de Vita Ascetica i estimonia Collecta (Halle, 1886); 
R. Meyer, St Athanasius - The Life of St Anthony (Westminster, 1950); G. Garitte, Un 
temoin important du texte de la Vie de saint Antoine par saint Athanase (Brussels and Rome, 
1939); Meinardus, pp. 17-21. An Arabic translation of the Vita with introductory remarks 
and epilogue is made by Fr. Markus Dawud (Cairo, 1950). 


but they continued to lead solitary lives in the neighbourhood of his cave. 
Thus we begin to witness the development of numerous settlements of 
anchorites around the dwelling-places of men of great holiness. These in¬ 
cluded those driven either consciously or unwittingly by natural impulse to¬ 
ward the gregarious life for self-defence against the hazards of wild beasts, 
malevolent marauders, or illness without care or assistance. A disabled 
anchorite alone was doomed, for usually he had to walk in the blistering 
sands for a day or two to replenish his stock of food and water. In this way, 
and during Antony’s lifetime, there developed the second stage of monastic 
life, which may be called ‘collective eremitism’. These settlements multiplied, 
the oldest growing around Antony’s towering personality in the district of 
Pispir and spreading eastward into the outer mountains of what is known 
now as the Arabian desert in the direction of the Red Sea, approximately 
where the Monastery of St Antony stands to the present day. Another com¬ 
munity arose at Chenoboskion, in the Thebaid near the hermitage of St 
Pakemon, from whom St Pachomius the Great received his initiation into 
monastic life. This is roughly the area where the treasure of the Gnostic 
papyri was discovered, not far from the modern city of Nag Hamadi. 
Finally, there were three settlements in the western desert within a day s 
journey of Alexandria, namely, Nitrea, Cellia and Scetis. The Nitrean colony 
was founded by Amoun, who is said to have espoused secretly the cause of 
monasticism after his marriage. For eighteen years he persuaded his young 
wife to meet him at night but only for watching and praying, and in 325 he 
retired completely to Nitrea for the next twenty-two years, where monks 
congregated around him. Cellia, slightly north of Nitrea, was the home oi 
Macarius the Alexandrian, who had spent some years almost naked in the 
mosquito-infested marshes of Mareotis. His feats of austerity astounded his 
contemporaries. He died in 393 at the age of one hundred years. It was in 
Cellia that Arsenius, master of Constantine, came to live. The third settle¬ 
ment was in Scetis, south-east of Nitrea and a forbidding wilderness where 
St Macarius the Great founded another monastery about 330. 1 

Originally a disciple of St Antony, this second Macarius performed super¬ 
human feats of austerity. The Paradise of Palladius furnishes the incredible 
story of Macarius’ visit at a later date to a Pachomian monastery in Taben- 
nesis for the forty days of Lent. The abbot admitted the stranger on sufferance 
owing to his great age. Lent began and the younger brethren vied with one 
another in fasting, some until vespers, others for two days, others for five. 
But Macarius stood alone in a corner, plaiting palm-fibres and praying for 

1 Most impressive on this area is the monumental work by H. C. Evelyn-White, 7 be 
Monasteries of Wadi *n Natriin , 2 vols. (New York, 1926-33). See also C. Martin, ‘Lcs 
Monastcrcs du Ouadi Natroun’, in Nouvelle Revue Tbeologique , LXVIII (1935), 113-34, 


forty days without touching bread or water, though he ate a few raw 
cabbage-leaves on Sundays so as not to seem ostentatious. He neither slept 
nor knelt nor spoke. The humiliated brethren thus approached the abbot, 
rebelliously asking the expulsion of that strange creature on the threat of 
leaving themselves. When Pachomius heard their story, he realized who the 
visitor was. Then he sped to his oratory and kissed him and thanked him for 
exposing the conceit of his youngsters and for edifying his congregation. 
Before allowing him to leave, he asked for his prayers; then Macarius 
departed. 1 

Other less imposing settlements of hermits emerged in various parts of the 
country, such as those at Babylon, Memphis, Heracleopolis and Oxyrynchus. 
But, in the meantime, a new chapter in the story of monasticism was begin¬ 
ning at Tabennesis. This was associated with the name of Pachomius. Born a 
pagan and serving as a youth in the armies of Constantine and Licinius, 
Pachomius 2 was exposed to the communities of Christians during his cam¬ 
paigns. The goodness of those Christians who came to wash the soldiers’ feet 
and offer them food in spite of their harsh treatment of the poor villagers 
seems to have impressed the young Pachomius who resolved to join them as 
soon as he was released. Later he was converted to Christianity and, in the 
zeal of a new convert, followed the famous hermit Palasmon, who trained 
him in the art of self-inflicted torture. In the process his mind was opened to a 
new revelation. He perceived that solitary life and torture and famine were 
not the only possible roads to heaven; and if he were to inaugurate a com¬ 
bination of asceticism and ccenobitic, or communal, life, he might recruit a 
greater number of pious men with a useful purpose. Thus was born the rule 
of St Pachomius (ca. 290-346), surnamed the Great. This was the third and 
last stage in the development of the monastic ideal. Contemporary ecclesi¬ 
astical historians declared that he received a tablet with the rule inscribed 
on it from an angel’s hands. That rule, however, like all enduring institu¬ 
tional achievements, was not merely a codified set of regulations but an 
evolutionary process in which the saint devised solutions to meet emerging 

1 Story quoted by Helen Waddell, pp. 14-16. 

2 L. Th, Lefort, Les vies copies de saint Pachome et de ses premiers successeurs (Louvain, 

1 943)i idem, CEuvres de S. Pachome et de ses disciples (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum 
Orientalium, Vol. 100; Scriptores Coptici, T. 24; Louvain, 1956); Pachomiana: Commemor¬ 
ation du XVIeme Centenaire de St Pacome PEgptien (348-1948) (Publications du Centre 
d’Ltudcs Orientalcs de la Custodie Fran^iscaine de la Terre-Sainte, Coptica 3; Cairo, 

1 95 5); L Halkin, S. Pachomii 17 tee Graeco: (Brussels, 1932); E. Amelineau, Histoire de St 
Pakhome et de ses communantes , Documents copies et arabes inedits (Annales du Musee Guimct, 
17; Paris, 1889); P. Ladcuze, £ tilde stir le Cenobitisme pakhomien pendant le quatrieme siecle 
et la premiere moitie du cinquieme (Louvain, 1898); G. Grutzmacher, Pachomius und das diteste 
Klosterleben , Ein Beitrag gu Monchsgeschichte (Freiburg and Leipzig, 1896); A. Boon, 
Pachomiana Latina, Regie et epitres de St Pachome , e'pitre de St Theodore et Liber de St Oriesius 
(Louvain, 1932); J. Dorcssc, ‘Monastcrcs coptes thebains’, in Revue des Conferences Eran- 
faises cn Orient (Novcmbrc, 1949), pp. 3-16. 


problems. St Pachomius presents us with all the qualities of his own life and 
experience: as a soldier who knew discipline, an educator who appreciated 
knowledge, an administrator who organized his communities with a prac¬ 
tical dexterity, and a holy man who appreciated the virtues of prayer and a 
perfect life. When he died in 346, he left behind him a large number of 
monasteries teeming with formidable communities, and his system spread 
from Tabennesis to all the other monastic centres. Figures are always decep¬ 
tive when we deal with those remote annals. One modest record, however, 
states that the Pachomian foundation in Tabennesis housed 7,000 monks. 
Mount Nitrea 5,000, and Arsinoe over io^oo. 1 Another report in 394 said 
that the dwellers of the desert equalled the populations of the towns, and 
enthusiasm ran high everywhere. 

A brief analysis of the rule of St Pachomius may be given as one of the 
great landmarks in the history of Christianity. The general trend of the 
Pachomian system showed the soldier and the holy man combined in one 
person. Every detail of the monk’s activity by day and night was prescribed 
by the legislator: the brother’s dress, his food, the hours and manner of his 
sleep, his travels, his hours of worship, and a penal code to be rigorously en¬ 
forced against all defaulters. Yet Pachomius was no inhuman giant who im¬ 
posed a merciless regime on his followers. As he watched the ghastly 
practices of the Antonian and Pakemonian anchorites during his early days, 
his heart was moved toward the humanization of monasticism. A monk must 
curb the body, but it was unnecessary for him to destroy it in pursuit of 

1 Waddell, pp. 7-8; Hardy, p. 92, on the authority of Palladius quotes the number of 
7,500 monks for the districts of Alexandria and Nitrea and an equal number for the 
Thebaid and other places that he visited. The figure of 10,000 monks and 20,000 virgins 
who took the veil in Oxyrynchus alone on the authority of the Historia Monachorum by 
Rufinus and quoted unquestioningly in Butcher’s Story of the Church of Egypt, Yol. I, p. 195, 
is questioned by Hardy (loc. cit.), though he estimates the total of the monastic profession 
at its height loosely between 100,000 and 200,000 out of a population not exceeding 
7,500,000, which Josephus recorded in the first century. Hardy mentions the existence 
of a hundred bishoprics in Egypt at the time. Meinardus {Monks and Monasteries , p. 380) 
estimates the highest figure to have been more than half a million and quotes 10,000 in 
the Faiyum according to Rufinus (p. 372), 5,000 in the Nitrcan wilderness by Palladius 
(p. 387). The Thebaid had 3,000, Bawit 5,000. According to John of Petra (p. 550), Scetis 
had 3,500, and Cassian’s earlier figure is 5,000, but St Jerome’s 50,000 is an exaggeration. 
On the eve of the Arab Conquest, Nikiou in the Delta is reported to have had 700 hermits. 
The Islamic historian al-Maqrizi (ca. 1442), writing about the Arab Conquest in the 
seventh century, mentions that there were 100 monasteries in Wadi al-Natrun alone, 
though only seven survived in his day, and that 70,000 monks, each carrying his staff, 
went out of that valley to welcome the conqueror f Amr ibn al- f As on his return from 
Alexandria and to seek his safe-conduct; see his Khitat . 2 vols. (Bulaq, 1270 a.h.), Vol. I, 
p. 186; cf. f Umar Toussoun, Wadi al-Natrun (in Arabic; Alexandria, 1935), p. 39, but this 
number is a clear exaggeration. Other numerical estimates of the Nitrean monks are given 
as 737 for the year 1075 a.d. and 201 for the year 1924 (ibid., 45, 168). The leaflet of Deir- 
el-Sourian of 1959 mentions 45 monks in that monastery. Bishop Samuel tells me that its 
present 1962 number is 30 out of a total of 300 monks in all the Egyptian monasteries. 


heaven. While providing for the needs of the life of a brother, the new rule 
also watched over the salvation of his soul. Celibacy, chastity, devotion, 
poverty, and obedience were among the prerequisites of a good monk. 
Perhaps the most revolutionary features in the system were the introduction 
of manual labour, and a considerable measure of education in the cenobitic 
life of the monks. During the probationary period of one to three years a 
novice had to prove the seriousness of his intention before acceptance. Apart 
from sharing in the ways of the community, he was requested to learn how to 
read and write, and also to memorize twenty psalms and two epistles of the 
New Testament. Illiteracy was banned in Pachomian ccenobitism. 

The monk had to be a useful human being and must labour for his daily 
bread and enrich his mind, without neglecting his spiritual duties. A 
customary occupation was basket-weaving and rope-making, though the 
monastery was usually a self-contained unit with its bakers and cooks, 
weavers and tailors, farmers and millers, masons and carpenters, smiths and 
mechanics, even scholars and copyists of manuscripts. Bishop Palladius tells 
us that he saw at the monastery of Panopolis fifteen tailors, seven smiths, 
four carpenters, fifteen fullers and twelve camel drivers. The Pachomian 
monastery had the appearance of a vast Roman fortification surrounded by a 
high and massive wall, on the fringe of the valley or some way within the 
desert. Next to the great portal was a guest house, within the walls, but out¬ 
side the inner courtyards reserved for regular monks. Chapels, a community 
hall, library (or scriptorium ), refectory, hospital, mill, bakery, kitchen, vestry, 
shop, varied stores and all manner of buildings clustered around a central 
keep, or fortified tower, with a drawbridge leaning on to a nearby roof to 
which the brethren resorted whenever attacked by marauding bedouin tribes. 
The monastic cells lined the walls. The Pachomian rule placed three monks in 
a cell, except in the case of recluses who led a solitary life in their own 
quarters, though the practice was usually discouraged but not completely 
eliminated by the abbot. A corner was reserved for burial. The rest of the 
open space was kept for gardening, and open-air labour, which comprised 
work at the water-wheel, wells and stable. 1 

1 Apart from gleanings about the structure of a Pachomian monastery, the accounts 
of some modern travellers are helpful in this regard. In Arabic see the account by tw o 
Coptic archaeologists, Lablb Habashy and Zaki Tawadros, of a 1927 visit to the Eastern 
Monasteries of St Paul and St Antony, publ. Cairo, 1928; see also Umar Toussoun s 
work cited in the note above. Most useful among older publications are A. J. Butler, 
The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1884); H. G. Evelyn-White, op. 
cit.; H. E. Winlock, The Monastery of Epiphaneus at Thebes , 2 vols. (New York, 1926); 
U. Monneret de Villard, Les convents pres de Sohag, 2 vols. (Milan, 1925-6); idem, 11 Mon- 
astero di S. Suneone presso Aswan (Milan, 1927); C. M. Kaufmann, Die Ausgrabung der 
Menasheiligtiimer in der Mareotiswuste , 3 vols. in 1 (Cairo, 1906-8). The last is a typical early 
Christian pilgrim city. For modern travellers, see Jules Leroy, op. eit., J. Doresse, Deux 
monasteres coptcs oublies: Saint Antoine et Saint Paul dans le desert de la Mer Rouge , 


Pachomius aimed at a closely knit government of all his foundations, in 
order to guard against corruption and material or moral deterioration. Every 
three or four monasteries within easy reach of one another were united in a 
clan, with a president elected from among their abbots, and the monks 
met periodically to discuss their local problems. The clans were united under 
a superior-general, who was head of the principal monastery. A general 
assembly was convened twice every year: on the twentieth of the Coptic 
month of Mesuri (12 August) in the summer for administrative purposes 
after the harvest; and at Easter when annual reports were given, new superiors 
were announced and finally, in an impressive scene, a mutual forgiveness of 
sins was made by the whole brotherhood. 

Within the monasteries, in addition to the bulk of Coptic cenobites, there 
were monks from different nations - Greeks, Romans, Cappadocians, 
Libyans, Syrians, Nubians, Ethiopians and others. To each nation was 
accorded a special ward, under the leadership of a fellow citizen who acted 
for the abbot. 

The fathers of the Church from numerous parts of the world flocked to 
those religious houses for apprenticeship in the art of monasticism. An 
immense traffic of pilgrims was conducted to the caves of holy men and to 
regular monasteries in the Egyptian wilderness. Some of the greatest per¬ 
sonalities of the age joined this stream of pious men who came to the school 
of the desert from all countries. Emperors sent representatives, and the great 
Patriarch Athanasius has already been mentioned. St John Chrysostom (ca. 
347-407), bishop of Constantinople, stayed under the Pachomian rule in the 
Thebaidfrom373 to 381. St Jerome (ca. 342-420) 1 and Rufinus (ca. 345-410), 2 
the ecclesiastical historian, came from Italy and spent time in Egypt. St Basil 
(ca. 3 30-79), 3 the Cappadocian Father and author of the famous Liturgy 
bearing his name and still in use in the eastern churches, introduced monas¬ 
ticism into Byzantium on the basis of his Pachomian apprenticeship. St John 
Cassian (ca. 360-435) passed seven years in the Thebaid and the Nitrean 

in Revue des Arts (March, 1952); idem, Recbercbes d'arcbeologie Copte: les monasteres de 
Moyenne Eg)pte (Comptes rendus de l’academie dcs Inscriptions ct Belles-Lettres; Paris, 
1952). Two small but interesting guides are noteworthy: O. H. E. Burmestcr, A Guide to 
the Monasteries of tbe Wadi n’Natrun (Cairo, 1956) and a leaflet entitled ‘The Monastery 
of the Holy Virgin and St John Kane known as Dcir-cl-Sourian’, prepared by the monks 
in English (Cairo, 1959); cf. Otto Meinardus, Monks and Monasteries of tbe Egyptian Deserts 
(Cairo, 1961); J. Simon, ‘Le monastere copte de Samuel de Kalamon’, in Orientalia 
Christiana Periodica , I (1935), 46-52. 

1 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd ser., Vol. Ill; L. T. Lcfort, Un texte original de la 
regie de Saint Pachome (Paris, 1919). 

2 Rufinus Tyrannius Aquileiensis, Historia Monachorum , sen. Liber de vitis patrum , in 
Migne, P.E., XXI, 389-462; cf. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd ser., Vol. III. 

3 See Nicene and Post-Nicene Father /, 2nd ser., Vol. VII; cf. W. K. L. Clarke, St Basil 
the Great: A Study in Monasticis??i (Cambridge, 1913); E. F. Morison, Basil and His Rule: 
A Study in Early Monasticism (London, 1912). 


desert before introducing monasticism into Gaul and writing his Institutes 
and Colloquies from personal experiences with the desert fathers. 1 Palladius 
(ca. 365-425), bishop of Helenopolis in Bithynia, compiled the lives of the 
Egyptian saints in his Lausiac History , 2 sometimes described as ‘The Paradise 
of the Fathers'. 3 Even women came; among them ‘Etherea’, the fourth- 
century Spanish abbess, and Melania (ca. 345-410), the aristocratic Roman 
widow. 4 

The rule of St Pachomius, which took the lead in the world, and the 
Pachomian community which became so international in character, strangely 
enough gave rise to a stricter rule of national importance in the fifth century. 
This rule was asbociated with the name of St Shenute of Atripe, 5 who suc¬ 
ceeded his uncle Pgol, founder of the White Monastery, across the Nile from 
the ancient city of Panopolis and just outside the new city ofSuhag, in 383. He 
died either in 451 or 466, 6 showing at any rate that he held the helm for more 
than sixty-five years, during which time he developed his own rule of more 
austerity and intense manual labour. He accumulated enough wheat in his 
granaries to feed armies of refugees 7 from the Blemye invaders of Upper 
Egypt- Ele lived at one of the most critical moments in Egyptian history, 
when paganism lost its last round with the destruction of the Serapeum and 
the massacre of Hypatia in 415. In Upper Egypt, he responded by leading an 
army of his monks in wrecking the ancient pagan monuments and temples. 
This was also the age of the oecumenical councils, and Shenute presumably 
accompanied Cyril the Great to Ephesus in 431. The tragedy of Chalcedon 
occurred in 45 U followed by the rise of the so-called Coptic ‘monophysi- 
tism , which intensified the nationalist temper of Shenute, and he then started 
a deliberate movement to purge both the Coptic liturgies and literature of 

1 See note above. 

^ 2 C. Butler, The Lausiac History of Palladius , 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1898-1904). See also 
Kammerer’s Bibliography , nos. 1179-81, 2530, 2557, 2565. 

3 This is really an old compilation from Palladius and other Fathers. E. A. T. Wallis 
Budge, tr., The Book of Paradise . . ., 2 vols. (London, 1904); idem, The Paradise of the 
Fathers . . ., 2 vols. (London, 1907; rev. edn. Oxford, 19^4); idem, The Wit and Wisdom 
of the Christian Fathers of E&pt (Oxford, 1934). 

See articles on Etherea and Melania in 7 he Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church , 
ed. F. L. Cross (Oxford, 1957). 

Atripe, or Atribe, is situated on the west bank of the Nile by the modern Suhag, 
facing Panapolis, or Ikhmlm. 

On the problem of dates, see J. Leipoldt, Schenute von Atripe und die Entstehung des 
national agyptischen Christentums (Leipzig, 1903), pp. 44 ff.; J. F. Bethune-Baker, ‘The Date 
of the Death of Nestorius, Schenute, Zacharias, Evagrius’, in Journal of Theological Studies, 

(Oxford, 1908), 601 ff.; K. H. Kuhn, Letters and Sermons of Besa (Corpus Scriptorium 
Christianorum Orientalium, 158, Scriptores Coptici, 22; Louvain, 1956), p. 1. Besa was 
the immediate successor of Shenute as abbot of the White Monastery, and his work 
illustrates the austerity of the new rule. 

7 Milne, Roman Egypt , pp. 223-25, cites 20,000 men, women and children for three 
months and the use of 85,000 artabas of wheat besides other material. 


every element of Greek. He was a tireless preacher and a prolific writer 
whose works made Sahidic Coptic the elegant language of writing, as against 
the I kh mlmic, which became that of colloquial speech. He was not a theo¬ 
logian of consequence, but rather a moralist, an administrator, and an in¬ 
veterate enemy of heathenism and Hellenism. His followers numbered more 
than two thousand monks and a couple of thousand nuns, 1 all of purely 
Coptic origin; which fact accounts for the absence of his name from all the 
European literature of the time concerning the Fathers of the Desert. 2 From 
the Coptic standpoint, however, if we accept the authority of Worrell, he was 
‘the most remarkable man whom the Copts ever produced, the founder in¬ 
deed of Coptic Christianity’: 3 a verdict to be accepted only with reservations, 
though his further remark that ‘Shenute was also the greatest of all writers 
in the Coptic language’ 4 is indisputable. 

Monasticism has survived in Egypt, and has given the Coptic Church an 
unbroken line of 116 patriarchs beginning with St Mark around the middle of 
the first century. Though the Copts have been preyed upon by the Greeks 
and Romans, and in modern times by all manner of Protestant missionaries, 
they are still a standing monument to primitive apostolic Christianity. It is 
true that most of their monasteries have disappeared, and that the Pachomian 
rule has lost its ancient fire; but there is a revival in the surviving monasteries 
with their modern recruits from the educated class. Of the monasteries still 
intact and inhabited by groups of Coptic monks, there are four in the 
Nitrean Valley in the western desert, two in the eastern desert bearing the 
names of St Paul the Hermit and St Antony the Great, and the Monastery of 
Our Lady, known as al-Muharraq, on the western edge of the valley in the 
neighbourhood of the city of Asiut. They are all monuments of Christian 
antiquity. The White Monastery and the Red Monastery 5 stand where they 
were in the age of Shenute, in tolerably good condition, but are now used 
only as churches with no resident monks. 

Recent attempts have been made, notably under the sponsorship of the 
present ‘Pope’ and Patriarch Kirollos, or Cyril VI, both before and after his 
consecration, to restore St Samuel’s monastery in the wilderness of Antinoe. 
He has also aimed at re-establishing the cathedral of St Mena, built by Em¬ 
peror Arcadius (395-408). Both sites have been excavated. Other monastic 

1 Hardy, p. 102; Meinardus, p. 380, mentions 2,200. 

2 Sinuthii Archimandrites vita et opera omnia , ed. J. Lcipoldt and tr. H. Wiesmann, 4 vols. 
(Paris, 1906-31). See Kammercr, nos. 1195-1206, 1557-8, 1564-5, 2480, 2526-7, 2537, 

3 Worrell, Short Account of Copts , p. 22. The founder of Sahidic literature was presum¬ 
ably Pachomius (ibid., p. 16), for he and his Coptic disciples did not write in Greek, but 
Shenute was much more prolific than all his predecessors in that dialect. 

4 Ibid. l.c. 

5 Not far from the White Monastery, built in red brick, under the abbacy of Apa Pshai; 
Worrell, p. 20. 


sites excavated, with important artistic yields, include the fifth-century St 
Jeremias’ at Saqqara; 1 Bawlt 2 founded in the western desert by Apa Apollo, 
who died in 315; and St Simeon’s at Aswan. The Metropolitan Museum has 
conducted excavations at St Ephiphaneus, near Thebes, and at the monas¬ 
teries of Wadi al-Natrun. 3 The Coptic Archaeological Society explored the 
area where once St Phcebamon’s Monastery stood, also near Thebes. 4 More¬ 
over, a whole monastic settlement must have been located at the distant El- 
Bagawat necropolis in the Kharja Oasis in the western desert. This has already 
been excavated, and a remarkable description of the findings published. 5 

In Wadi al-Natrun alone, the older histories mention fifty monasteries, 
and the late Prince r Umar Toussoun 6 seems to have identified at least twenty- 
five of them in the unexcavated mounds within the valley. In the fifteenth cen¬ 
tury, Maqrlzi 7 enumerated eighty-six monasteries in the whole of Egypt, but 
the original number must have been much greater. Some Coptic archaeolo¬ 
gists 8 estimate them at 365, for both monks and nuns. Five nunneries sur¬ 
vive, and all are situated in the region of Cairo. 9 The task of bringing the 
ruins of those still unknown or unidentified establishments to the light of day 
is in its infancy, but the enduring impact of the Coptic Fathers of the Desert 
on world history is a living reality. 

1 Now mostly in the Coptic Museum; M. H. Smaika, A Brief Guide to the Coptic Museum 
(Cairo, 1938). The earlier Arabic edition in 2 vols. (Cairo, 1930-2) is fuller. 

2 See above note on Bawit treasures in Coptic Museum, also some articles in the Louvres: 
J. des Graviers, ‘Inventaire des objets coptes de la salle de Baouit au Louvres’, in Rivista 
di Archeologia Cristiana , IX (1932), 51-103; G. Mounereau, ‘La Salle copte de Baouit’, in 
Chronique d'Egypte, V, 9 (1930), 115-16, repr. from Echo de Paris. 

3 See above notes 1, p. 61, and 1, p. 64, on the works of both Winlock and Evelyn- 

4 Publications of the Coptic Archaeological Society (Cairo). 

5 Ahmad Fakhry, The Necropolis of El-Bagawat in Khar go Oasis (publ. Service des Antiqui- 
tes de rfigypte; Cairo, 1951). 

6 Wadi al Natrun: Its Monks , Monasteries and Summary of the History of the Patriarchs 
(in Arabic), pp. 48 ff.; he estimates an average of 100 monks per monastery. 

7 Macrizi, Geschichte der Kopten , ed. and tr. F. Wiistenfeld (Gottingen, 1846); see tr., 
pp. 85-117 on monasteries. 

8 Zaki Tawadros and Labib Habashi, p. 28. This figure is the one accepted by most 
Copts. Many ancient ruins are seen on the edge of the desert plateau in Upper Egypt. 
They are little known and may be remains of monastic cenobia. 

9 Listed by Wahlb "Atalla Girgis, pp. 140-1, as follows: first, two convents of St Mary 
and St George at Haret Zuwaila in Cairo; secondly, Convent of Haret El-Roum in Cairo; 
thirdly. Convents of Abu El-Seyfein (St Mercurius) and of Mari Girgis (St George) in 
Old Cairo. 


Monophysitism versus Diophysitism 

The immediate outcome of the Chalcedon decisions in 451 was the first great 
schism of the Apostolic Church. The East was branded by the West as Mono- 
physite, while the West was described by the East as Eiophysite. 1 lie lise of 
the so-called ‘Monophysitism’ in the East was of course led by the Copts of 
Egypt. This must be regarded as the outward expression of the growing 
nationalist trends in that province against the gradual intensification of 
Byzantine imperialism, soon to reach its consummation during the reign of 
Justinian (527—65). Interesting as they may be to the student of divinity, the 
theological controversies between the ‘Monophysites’ in Alexandria and 
the ‘Diophysites’ in Rome and Constantinople have been unduly overrated 
as the root of the cleavage between the Eastern and Western Churches. 
Consequently the historical factors in this intricate picture have suffered and 
some facets of the real issue have been overshadowed by purely religious 
considerations. To this day the Copts hold the view that the differences 
magnified at Chalcedon and after never justified a widening doctrinal gap 
between sister sees. 

The Copts consistently repudiate the Western identification of Alexandrine 
Christianity with the Eutychianism which originated in Constantinople, and 
which they have always regarded as a flagrant heresy, since it declared the 
complete absorption of Christ’s manhood in His single divine nature, 
whereas the Copts clearly upheld the doctrine of the two natures - divine 
and human - mystically united in one, without confusion, corruption, or 
change. As a strictly traditional church, its religious leaders have sought 
biblical justification for this interpretation of the Nicaean Creed and the 
Cyrillian formula, but meanwhile have restricted the substance of their 
variance to interpretation. Those who can read the Coptic sources, 1 both in 

1 The official Coptic interpretation has been made by Wahib A. Girgis (now Fr. Pakhoum 
A. El-Moharraky), The Christological Teaching of the Non-Chaldedonian Churches (in 
Arabic and English; Cairo, 1962); Kirollos El-Antouny (now Archbishop Basileus of 
Jerusalem), The s 4 .ge of the (hawienical Councils (in Arabic, Cairo, 195 PP* ^ 7 ^ d. bee 



Coptic and in Arabic, rather than study their doctrinal outlook through 
secondary works by members of the opposite camp, 1 are left wondering 
whether political and ecclesiastical authority was not behind the unnatural 
exaggeration of existing differences between the two professions. 

In fact, unless we study the main events more deeply the real issues at 
stake will continue to be drowned in vociferous arguments and mutual 
accusations on both sides. That the East, or more precisely, the Alexandrine 
Fathers of the Coptic Church, had led the way in the first three crucial 
oecumenical councils, seems to be a foregone conclusion which needs no 
elaboration. That a fourth meeting, at Ephesus, should again be dominated 
by the Coptic element appeared to strike a note of alarm in the imperial 
cities of Rome and Constantinople. The subsequent fury of the West over the 
second Council of Ephesus was demonstrated in its rather impulsive des¬ 
cription of it as a ‘robber council’. This may help to explain the unusual 
efforts exerted by the empire and the Western Church to assemble so great an 
army of bishops (approximately six hundred) as was convened at Chalcedon 
to reverse the decisions made in 449 and to re-assert the religious supremacy 
of the seat of empire o ver provincial insubordination. Parallel to its doctrinal 
decisions, Chalcedon generated a historic by-product of very grave character. 
The first defeat sustained by Egypt in the oecumenical field, and the humili¬ 
ation, deposition and exile of its native Patriarch Dioscorus, were followed 
by the installation of a successor in the see of Alexandria in the person of 
Proterius (452-7), a docile friend of Byzantine imperialism, by means of 
brutal military force. The Egyptians immediately responded by the election 
of a rival native patriarch Timothy Aelurus. Consequently, the hitherto 
united bishopric of Alexandria was split between two lines of patriarchal 
succession. The Melkite, or royalist, line was Greek and originated from Con¬ 
stantinople while obeying Chalcedon. The other, described as ‘Monophysite’, 
was native and stood fast by the national cause of the Egyptian people while 
repudiating Greek hegemony and the Chalcedonian profession. It was thus 

also below under the Jacobites, ch. 9, n. 26, reference to the Indian Fr. V. C. Samuel, who 
wrote a Yale thesis on the Christology of Severus of Antioch and suggested the term 
‘Meaphysitism’ to convey the sense of union rather than the misnomer of‘Monophysitism’. 
A secular writer in Arabic, Fransis El-Ttr, voices the same traditional Coptic view but 
selects his supporting documents from purely Roman Catholic sources; cf. his The Coptic 
Nation and its Orthodox Church (Cairo, 1953), pp. 39-63. 

1 The Western outlook on ‘Monophysitism’ appears in most of the Roman, Greek and 
even Protestant works, both theological and historical; e.g., A Fortescue, The Lesser 
Eastern Churches (London, 1913), pp. 163 ff.; A. A. Luce, Mo nophy sit ism, East and Present: 
A. Study in Christology (London, 1913); J. Maspero, Histoire des patriarches d’Alexandrie 
(Paris, 1923), pp. 1 ff., 182 ff.; W. A. Wigram, The Separation of the Monophysites (London, 

I 92 3 ). 


within the pale of the Church that the already-emerging Egyptian nationalism 
became accelerated in its progress. 1 

At the beginning, the central secular authority took the movement rather 
lightly and thought that sectarian heterodoxy could easily be mended. But 
the seriousness of the position became clear when the Alexandrian populace 
seized the opportunity presented by the Prefect’s entanglement in the wars 
with the Vandals in North Africa and the Blemyes in the Thebaid, to pounce 
on the unguarded and unhappy Proterius, assassinate him, drag his body 
through the city streets, burn it, and cast his dust to the winds. Timothy 
became momentarily the sole patriarch, and his position was strengthened in 
475, when the Emperor Zeno was ousted from the capital by Basiliscus, who 
had strong leanings towards Monophysitism. This situation did not last long. 
Shortly afterwards Zeno was reinstated, but Timothy Aelurus died in time 
to escape imperial deposition. Zeno’s new candidate was Timothy Salo- 
phaciolus in opposition to the nationally elected Peter Mongos. This Timothy 
died in 481, and the Copts pleaded for their own Peter Mongos as sole 
patriarch. The unwilling emperor gave them instead a strongly orthodox 
bishop named John Talaia, who enjoyed support from Rome. The ensuing 
confusion was even more intensified by the popular choice of another 
candidate, John of Tabenna, to succeed the deposed Peter. But neither John 
Talaia nor his new opponent John Tabenna was able to retain favour with 
the court of Constantinople. The first committed acts of imprudence and 
fled to Rome, while the other was disregarded by Zeno. At that moment 
Peter Mongos was in the capital while Acacius (471-89) was bishop of 
Constantinople. Rapprochement between the two leaders was engineered 
while Zeno began to feel the hopelessness of winning the Monophysites in 
Alexandria by force. A new device had to be found for the restoration of 
peace and unity to Church and empire. 

The Henoticon 

The new device to solve the religious problem was known as the Henoticon , 2 
that is, Act of Union. In their earlier leanings, both the Emperor Zeno and 

1 E. L. Woodward, Christianity and Nationalism in the Later Roman Empire (London, 
1916); A. S. Atiya, ‘The Coptic Church and the Nationalist Trend in Byzantine Egypt’ 
(in Arabic), in Bulletin of the Royal Society of Historical Studies , 111 , 1 (Cairo, 1950), 1-14; 
E. R. Hardy, Christian Egypt, pp. 111 ff.; Worrell, pp. 26 ff.; Milne, Egypt under Rome , pp. 
100 ff.; A Fortescue, p. 182; Maria Cramer, Das Christlich-Koptische Agypten, Einst und 
Heute (Wiesbaden, 1959), pp. 6-15. 

2 S. Salaville, ‘L’affaire dc l’henotique ou lc premier schisme byzantin au V e sieclc’, 
in Echos d’Orient, XVIII (1918), 255-66, 389-97, and XIX (1920), 49-68; A. A. Vasilicv, 


the Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople were distinctly Chalcedonian. But 
the rebellion of Basiliscus, temporary as it was, proved to both beyond doubt 
the strength of the Monophysites and the importance of pacifying them. It 
was therefore essential to find a formula that would be acceptable to them in 
place of the Chalcedonian profession. In fact Peter Mongos and Acacius, the 
architects of the Henoticon , aimed at taking the Church back to pre-Chalce- 
donian theology, and in 482, without great difficulty they prevailed upon 
Zeno to approve the new attempt. The text of the Henoticon recognized the 
decisions of the first three cecumenical councils. Both Nestorius and Eutyches 
and their followers were categorically anathematized. Christ was declared to 
be of the same nature as the Father, though He combined the human nature 
therewith. In phrasing the Henoticon care was taken to avoid explicit mention 
of one nature and two natures. An anathema was imposed on ‘all who have 
held, or hold now or at any time, whether in Chalcedon or in any other synod 
whatsoever, any different belief’. 1 Although Chalcedon was not repudiated 
outright, the terms of the Act of Union provided an immense step toward 
Monophysite thinking. The immediate result was a rapprochement between 
the churches of Alexandria and Constantinople, though Rome was extremely 
unhappy about the whole arrangement. 

As soon as people had time to consider these developments, however, it 
became clear that the official position was not completely representative of 
both congregations. The Greeks fell somewhat under the spell of decisions 
made by Pope Felix in a Roman synod of 484 excommunicating Acacius, 
though the papal delegates to Constantinople were man-handled and im¬ 
prisoned by Zeno. It was hard for the Greeks to swallow the concessions 
made to the Monophysites, while the Alexandrians in turn considered that 
Chalcedon was not openly reversed. Acacius in the meantime reacted by 
ordering the omission of the Roman bishop’s name from the Greek Diptychs, 
or Eucharistic Liturgies. A breach between Constantinople and Rome— 
technically known in Roman Catholic literature as the Acacian Schism 2 —fol¬ 
lowed and lasted for some thirty-five years. In spite of the deaths of Acacius 
in 489, Peter Mongos in 490, and Zeno in 491, the Henoticon was still upheld 
by the new emperor, Anastasius I (491-518). Successive bishops of Constan¬ 
tinople were made to sign the Henoticon on their nominations, and Mono¬ 
physite leanings remained the order of the day until Timothy of Constan¬ 
tinople and Emperor Anastasius died in 518. This was precisely the period in 

History of the Byzantine 'Empire, 224-1453 a.d. (Madison, Wise., 1952), pp. 107 if.; Fortes- 
cue, pp. 193 ff.; Hardy, pp .118-19; C. Lagier, Lt Orient Chretien, 2 vols.: (1) des Apotres 
jusqu a Photius, 33-8jo a.d., (2) de Photius a VEmpire Latin de Constantinople , 830-1204 a.d. 
(Paris, 1935-50), Vol. I, pp. 284-5. 

1 Cf. Vasilicv, p. 108. 

2 Fortcscuc, pp. 193-9. 


which Severus of Antioch (512-18) became the eloquent exponent of 
Monophysitism in his famous theological discourses. 

A reaction took place on the accession of Emperor Justin I (518-27), 
assisted by his nephew Justinian, both of whom were Chalcedonians. Severus 
was deposed in Antioch, and saved his life only by becoming a hunted 
fugitive at Alexandria. Reunion with Rome was arranged by Pope Hormis- 
das, who sent delegates to the imperial court in Constantinople with yet 
another formula in which he cursed and condemned Eutyches and Nestorius 
equally, as well as Dioscorus, Acacius, and all the other Monophysites. 

Justinian 1 (527-65), on succeeding to the throne, assumed the responsi¬ 
bility for action in the religious disputes. The new emperor represented the 
consummation of Byzantine imperialism. A great lawgiver, he was also a 
theologian of no mean merit. He was determined to restore unity in the 
Church as a fundamental step toward the realization of his theocratic aspir¬ 
ations and authority. From the beginning he leaned toward Chalcedon, 
though he refrained from quarrelling with Monophysitism. One very im¬ 
portant factor in the picture was Empress Theodora, who was secretly a 
Monophysite, and who defended Monophysitism and its upholders with 
every possible means in her power without openly antagonizing the Em¬ 
peror. Though Procopius of Caesarea, who wrote the secret history of the 
imperial court at the time, provides a most scandalous portrait of the empress, 
Theodora must have been profoundly interested in religion, a trait she shared 
with her husband. Her influence was considerable in shaping the religious 
policy of the empire. She persuaded Justinian to attempt a theological 
reconciliation of the hostile groups, and in 5 3 3 Severus felt safe enough to 
come to Constantinople at the head of a strong delegation from Egypt for 
that purpose, but nothing decisive was accomplished. 

To please the Monophysites and attract them to unity, Justinian issued an 
edict in 544, in which three pillars of Nestorianism were condemned. These 
are known as the Three Chapters 2 (Tria Kepbalaia ), namely, Theodore of 
Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa. The East readily 
accepted their condemnation, while the West oscillated between condoning 
or rejecting the edict. Vigilius, bishop of Rome (540-5 5), happened to be the 
scapegoat in the ensuing muddle. He was raised to the papacy by Theodora’s 
machination through the agency of the famous general Belisarius, while he 
was fighting the Goths in Italy. The price of his elevation, after much 
vacillation and frustration, was his signature on the condemnation of the 
Three Chapters; an act which infuriated the Roman bishops, and even 
created a schism in the Roman hierarchy. Vigilius, virtually a captive in 

1 Vasiliev, pp. 148-54; L. Brehier, ‘La politique religieuse de Justinicn’, in Histoire dc 
r&glise depuis les origines jusqua nos jours (ed. A. Fliche and V. Martin, IV, Paris, 1948), 
pp. 437 ff.; Lagier, I, 291 ff. 2 Fortcscue, pp. 199-208. 


Constantinople for most of the time, was set free, to die of exhaustion at 
Syracuse on his way to Rome. His successor, Pelagius I (5 55-61), was forced 
to confirm his acceptance of Justinian’s edict. As a result, the western schism 
persisted in Africa, Illyricum, Milan and Tuscany. It was not completely 
mended until 606. In fact, the whole issue of the Three Chapters began to 
quieten down only after Justinian’s death and the accession of Emperor 
Justin II (565-78), who published another Henoticon in 571. 

The conditions and policies within Egypt during that period were marked 
by the complete disorganization of administration, furthered by religious 
differences that ultimately became identified with the political rifts. The 
Melkites were supported by imperial forces, whereas the Monophysites had 
their own armies of monks. The monasteries gradually came into possession 
of vast property in land, and the monks were dedicated producers and far¬ 
mers. The imperial prefects were harassed from within by the nationalist 
Monophysites, while the Persians, the barbarians and the Blemyes hovered 
like vultures on the frontiers. To relieve the prefects from the resultant con¬ 
fusion, Justinian divided the country into two sections, entrusting the north 
(Alexandria and the Delta) to one prefect, and Upper Egypt, or more pre¬ 
cisely the Thebaid, to another. His aim was to lighten the burden of ad¬ 
ministration on a single prefect. Instead he sowed the seeds of local rivalry 
and civic disorganization between two governors of one province. But this 
was not the end of his innovations. When he nominated Apollinarius to the 
see of Alexandria in 541, he invested him concurrently with prefectural 
military powers to enable him to enforce religious policies by arms without 
dependence on secular authority. Furthermore, the Melkite patriarch was 
given the right to collect direct taxes for the maintenance of churches and for 
pastoral care. In addition to causing increased confusion in the administration 
of Egypt, these changes set a dangerous precedent for subsequent emperors. 
They gave the Church authorities the tools by which they could renew a 
fresh phase in the age of persecution, this time between Christian and 
Christian, with immeasurable consequences. The native Monophysites were 
embittered by this new policy. Actually it is said that that tragedy was 
inaugurated in the lifetime of Bishop Apollinarius, who attempted to curb 
the turbulent Monophysite elements by means of a public massacre. 1 

Justinian’s role in the history of Egyptian Christianity was not altogether 
of a dubious character. In keeping with his policy of putting an end to 
paganism, surviving in the fringes of the empire, he encouraged the mis¬ 
sionary enterprise to Mubia, though here Theodora seems to have foiled his 
plans by advancing the Monophysite mission as against the Melkite. He also 
closed the pagan temples of Isis in Phike and of Amon in the Suva Oasis, 
replacing them with Christian churches. Justinian is reputed to have been one 

1 Milne, pp. 108-11; Vasilicv, pp. 148-54; Fortcscue, pp. 199-208. 


of the greatest builders of Christian antiquity. Though most of the Coptic 
monasteries in the Egyptian wilderness were prior to his reign, it is possible 
that he made some additions to them. But Egypt owes to him the Monastery 
of St Catherine, previously known as the Monastery of Transubstantiation, 
on Mount Sinai. 


The remaining years of Byzantine rule in Egypt constitute one of the saddest 
periods in the history of that country. Not only did the problems of imperial 
succession and the usurpation of authority at Constantinople reflect them¬ 
selves in the administration of a much-coveted province, but also the 
innovations made by Justinian in the creation of rival prefectural powers 
produced a chaotic state of affairs. Thus Egypt was exposed to the forces of 
evil from within and to the covetous invader from without. Local adventurers 
found it possible to lead organized bands and plunder such towns as Busiris 
and Kinopolis, within reach of the seat of authority in Alexandria, while one 
prefect was busy deposing another in that great city. The shaky throne of 
Phocas (602-10) was tottering at this time, to fall at the feet of a new usurper 
of the imperial crown in the person of Heraclius, a Byzantine general of the 
African armies who crossed the Mediterranean and deposed his adversary in 
610. While all this was happening, the Persian armies under Chosroes Parviz 
were on the march into the Byzantine Asiatic provinces of Syria and Palestine. 
At the moment of the accession of Heraclius (610-41), Chosroes was within 
sight of the great city of Antioch. In 613 he entered Damascus, and in 614 he 
seized Jerusalem and carried away the Holy Cross and the instruments of the 
Passion, which he presented to his Christian Jacobite queen, Shlrln, in his 
capital Ctesiphon. In 619, while one of his contingents was forging ahead 
toward the Bosphorus, another invaded Egypt, which the Persians retained 
for well-nigh ten years. 

The state of the empire was pitiful, and all seemed lost. While Heraclius 
was contemplating flight to Carthage, the Byzantine Patriarch Sergius placed 
his Church treasure at the disposal of the emperor for conducting the first 
pre-crusading war of the Cross. By a daring strategy Heraclius led his armies 
across the Mediterranean to land on the shores of the Gulf of Alexandretta in 
622, intercepting the Persian armies from that point. And in the following 
year, he sailed the Black Sea to Trebizond, from which he surprised the 
Sassanian headquarters at Ganzak. The Persians were thus forced to with¬ 
draw from Egypt in 627, and the fame of Heraclius was enhanced by the 

76 • aftermath of chalcedon 

recovery of the Holy Cross, which was triumphantly re-instated in the Holy 
Sepulchre at Jerusalem. 

Egypt was thus returned to Byzantium, but Heraclius learned nothing 
from the bitter lesson. Not merely did he revive Justinian’s policies in 
EgypC but intensified them. He appointed a Melkite patriarch who became 
simultaneously prefect of the whole of Egypt, with vast religious, military, 
financial, administrative and judicial powers. In his eagerness to win the 
strong Monophysite party in Egypt without losing the western Chalce- 
donians, he hit upon a new device to replace the former unsuccessful 
Henoticon. In conjunction with Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople (610-38), 
he declared in 622 the new doctrine of Monotheietism, 1 in the hope that it 
might replace Monophysitism in the vocabulary of the turbulent provinces 
of Syria and Egypt. 

Without touching the burning question of the one and the two natures of 
Our Lord, Monothelete theology dwelt on the oneness of His human and 
divine wills, which were identical, unchanging and harmonious. It was 
hoped that the new formula would be readily accepted by the Monophysites, 
while to the Western supporters of Chalcedon it did not conflict with the 
two natures, with which the Lord simply combined a unique will. At the 
outset, this ingenious device seemed to please some of the prelates on both 
sides. Most noteworthy amongst those who accepted it were Athanasius 
(621-9), patriarch of Antioch, and Honorius I (625-38), the Roman pope. 
It is interesting to note, however, that Antiochene acceptance survived only 
amongst the Maronites of Lebanon, 2 whereas Honorius met stubborn resis¬ 
tance from his bishops in the West. In 638, Heraclius published his edict, the 
Ecthesis , intended to force all to accept Monotheietism. Without dwelling on 
the opposition to that doctrine at the Roman curia after Honorius, it must be 
noted that the chief stronghold of hostility was in Alexandria, where the 
Copts repudiated every Greek solution, from Chalcedon to the Henoticon and 
Monotheietism. Suspicion of Greek manoeuvres, the fear of departing from 
the dogmatic theology of Athanasius and Cyril, and the nationalist awareness 
of the Copts rendered them most reluctant to move from established tradition 
and meet the imperial authority half-way in matters of faith. 

But Egypt, the granary of the empire, was too precious for Heraclius to 
surrender to religious and civil separatism. He was determined to impose 
uniformity on that province by fair means or foul. The first step came in the 

1 Fortescue, pp. 209-13; Vasilicv, pp. 222-4. See also below under Maronites. L. 
Brehier and R. Aigrin, ‘Gregoire le Grand ct les Ltats barbares et la conquete arabe 
(590-757)’, in Histoire de Veglise, cd. Flichc and Martin (Paris, 1947), Vol. V, pp. 131 ff., 

151 ff.; Lagier, I, 377-86; Harnack, History of Dogma, Vol. IV, pp. 252 fF.; Tixeront, History 
of Dogmas, Vol. Ill, pp. 153 ff. 

2 Sec elsewhere. Part VI, Chapter XXIV, on origins and development of Maronite 


year 630, when he recollected that one of the early supporters of his Mono- 
thelete creation was a certain bishop of Phasis, in the Caucasus near the 
Black Sea, whose name was Cyrus, whose leanings were originally Nestorian, 
and whose national origin was doubtful. But he was astute enough to mirror 
imperial thinking and to reflect its religious policies. Thus Heraclius decided 
to elevate him to the joint function of Melkite patriarch of Alexandria and 
imperial prefect of Egypt on condition that he should bring the Copts to the 
faith of Chalcedon and of Monotheletism by hook or crook. Cyrus, later 
known in the Arab sources as al-Muqauqus, probably reached Alexandria 
early in 631, and set to work out his own plans without mercy. For ten years 
he was one of the most hateful tyrants in Egyptian history. lie used the 
Cross as an iron mace to club native resistance. 

The popularity of Heraclius, the hero who rescued the Cross from Persian 
captivity, soon sank to a low ebb. Every vestige of loyalty to Constantinople 
was obliterated by the behaviour of the imperial patriarch, who pursued 
Coptic prelates and Coptic nationalists until they paid lip service to his 
imperial faith or lost their lives. The new Coptic patriarch Benjamin I 1 
(633-62) was a fugitive in obscure and remote monasteries in the Thebaid 
throughout the last years of Byzantine rule in Egypt and until the advent of 
the Arabs. The patriarch’s own brother, Menas, was martyred by Cyrus in 
the new wave of persecution which swept over the country. According to 
the History of the Patriarchs , Cyrus ‘seized the blessed Menas, brother of the 
Father Benjamin, the patriarch, and brought great trials upon him and 
caused lighted torches to be held to his sides until the fat of his body oozed 
forth and flowed upon the ground, and knocked out his teeth because he con¬ 
fessed the faith; and finally commanded that a sack should be filled with sand, 
and the holy Menas placed within it, and drowned in the sea’. 2 Cyrus’s 
visitations of the cities and villages in the Delta and the Valley left behind a 
trail of terror. Flogging, imprisonment and killing were coupled with con¬ 
fiscation of property and of sacred church utensils. He even went to the 
monasteries to hunt out his enemies, and the monks either fought a losing 
battle or singly fled from their impious persecutor. Even hermits and ascetics 
were seized for trial and tortured to death. The story of Samuel, ascetic at the 
monastery of Qalamon, 3 in the wilderness of Arsinoe, is an example of the 
steadfast defiance of the Copt in the face of terrorization by a fellow-Christian, 

1 The only biography of Benjamin in book form is in Arabic by Kamel Salih Nakhla 
(Cairo, 1946). 

2 Evetts, II, 227. Presumably the author substituted the emperor’s name for that of his 
patriarchal prefect. 

3 E. C. Amelineau, Monuments pour servir a Vhistoirc de J’Pgypte cfjretienne aux 71 e y I e , 
VP, et VIP siecles, 2 vols. (Paris, 1888-95), Vol. IV, pt. 2, 774 ff.; idem, ‘Samuel dc 
Qualamoun’, in Revue de THistoirc dcs Religions, XXX (1894), 1-47; A. J. Butler, The Arab 
Conquest of Egypt and the East Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford, 1902), pp. 185-8. 


who was then a patriarchal prefect. Dragged from his hermitage in chains, 
with an iron collar round his neck like the worst of criminals, he was taken 
to the city of Piom (modern Faiyum), where he was abused, scourged, smitten 
on the mouth, subjected to all manner of diabolical tormenting, and ordered 
in the end to be slain by the soldiers, though he was saved under cover of 
night by his devoted pupils, who stole his mutilated body still wavering 
between life and death. Attempts at the assassination of Cyrus were craftily 
detected by his agents and followed by mass murder of all conspirators and 

The Copts were humiliated as never before, and the Coptic Church 
suffered the tortures of the damned at the hands of the Melkite colonialist. 
The wonder is that their communities were able to bear the brunt of such 
travesties and survive. It is conceivable, of course, that some members 
should feign conformity to escape indignity, flagellation and the rack. 
Examples cited by the History of the Patriarchs 1 include such illustrious names 
as Victor, bishop of Piom, and Cyrus, bishop of Nikiou. But the bulk of the 
Coptic nation remained faithful unto the last, and harboured a deep-seated 
hatred of the Byzantine oppressors and all things Byzantine, which found 
natural expression not only in the so-called Monophysite doctrine but also in 
the Coptic language, Coptic literature, and above all in Coptic art. 2 The gap 
which separated these ancient brethren widened, and could never be bridged. 
The differences went beyond all reasonable or unreasonable compromise. 
The stage was set for imminent change, whatever the change might be. It 
was at this moment that there came the Arab Conquest, and the Copts could 
do little more than stand aside and watch an inveterate and impious enemy 
crumble to the ground. A new leaf was about to be turned in their record of 
suffering and fortitude, and what could anyone do in the circumstances? 

1 Evctts, II, 227. 

2 See below, Chapter VIII. 


The Arab Conquest 

The coming of the Arabs to Egypt, 1 like that of St Mark to Alexandria, was 
an event of immeasurable consequence in the shaping of history in that cru¬ 
cial spot of the ancient and medixval worlds. Egypt, the granary of first 
Rome and then Byzantium, was not unknown to the Arabs during pre- 
Islamic days. c Amribn al-'As, its conqueror, appears to have led Arab trade 
caravans to the Nile Valley and even to have visited Alexandria and gazed on 
its splendour and untold wealth with bewilderment. It is no wonder, then, 
that during the Syrian campaign after the battle of Yarmuk (20 August 636) 
and the seizure of Jerusalem in 638, he approached the second Orthodox 
Caliph r Umar (634-44) and pleaded for permission to invade Egypt, the 
fairest of all Byzantine provinces, with whose passages and fortifications he 
was familiar. If the Persians were able to seize it twice, surely the Arab 
victors over the Persians in the battle of al-Qadisiya (636) could do the same 
and more. The invincibility of the Byzantine army had become a myth after 
the Syrian campaign. The caliph, who seems to have yielded reluctantly when 
in Jerusalem, revised his fears about a set-back when he returned to Medina. 
He rushed a message to his general to turn back if his letter should reach him 
before crossing the Egyptian frontier. If, however, the message reached him 
afterwards, then he should proceed, and the Muslims would implore heavenly 
aid for the invaders. The suspecting r Amr did not open the letter until he and 

1 The fullest and most authoritative work on this subject is still that of A. J. Butler, 
The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the East Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion (Oxford, 1902). 
All standard histories of Egypt under the Arabs have devoted adequate space to this 
chapter, and the following are quoted for reference: S. Lane-Poole, A History of Egypt in 
the Middle Ages (London, 1925), pp. 1-58; G. Wiet, Histoire de la Nation Egyptienne , IV: 
E’Eg)pte arabe (Paris, 1937), pp. 1-80; idem, Precis de THistoire d’ligypte, II, pt. 2: E’Egypte 
musulmane des la Conquete arabe a la Conquete ottomane (Cairo, 1932), pp. 109-53; P* K. Hitti, 
History of the Arabs (London, 1958), pp. 160-77. All histories of the Copts enumerated 
elsewhere devote sufficient attention to this capital event. Of the Arabic studies, see 
biography of Patriarch Benjamin I by Kamel Salih Makhla (Cairo, 1946), and Jacques 
Tagher’s work on Copts and Muslims up to 1922 (Cairo, 1951), pp. ii-m. Chief original 
sources and authorities arc cited by Butler. 



his tour thousand Arab horsemen reached the Egyptian frontier town of 
ah Arish. 1 hey thus pursued their route through northern Sinai to Pelusium 
(al-harama), the north-eastern stronghold, long regarded as the gate to the 
Delta. It fell into their hands after one month, early in 640. Another month 
saw the capture of Bilbais, east of the Delta. Its Byzantine garrison lost 1,000 
slain and 3,000 captives. Soon after, the Arabs stood before the strategic 
fortress of Babylon, 1 at the apex of the Delta, and from which the Byzantines 
ruled Lower Egypt on one side and Upper Egypt on the other. But here they 
could do nothing beyond a prolonged siege while they sallied into the sur¬ 
rounding country to subjugate the adjacent provinces. Reinforcements came 
trom Arabia under al-Zubayr ibn aLAwwam to raise the thin contingent to 
an army of 20,000. The village of Tm Dunain 2 to the south was occupied 
and a Byzantine garrison was routed at the battle of Heliopolis (Ayn Shams) 3 
in the north while an Arab column reached Memphis and raided the province 
of Faiyum in Middle Egypt, all in the course of 640. 

The beleaguered Cyrus, whom the Arabs called al-Muqauqus 4 and mistook 
for a Copt, chose to negotiate the surrender of the fortress, which took place 
on Good Friday, 6 April 641. The self-seeking Cyrus attempted to secure 
privileges from the invaders, who were adamant in their usual offer of three 
alternatives: adoption of Islam and sharing with the faithful, unconditional 
surrender and payment of tribute, or the sword until Allah decided the fate of 
the belligerents. The fall of that stronghold was a great shock to both the 
native Copt and the foreign Byzantine. Minor encounters followed on the 
road to Alexandria, the capital. Nikiou, 5 on the Rosetta branch, was taken by 
storm and its garrison slaughtered in May. The siege of Alexandria promised 
to be a rather prolonged affair. The city had fortified walls and strong towers, 
a garrison of 50,000 armed with engines of war and the fearful Greek fire, 
and having free access by sea to the empire for purposes of reprovisioning. 
The Arabs, on the other hand, inexperienced in siege warfare, excelled only in 
open battle. Alexandria could have held out indefinitely had it not been for 
the duplicity of Cyrus, whom Heraclius withdrew from Egypt and whom 

1 Built by Trajan (98-117 a.d.) on a Persian foundation, this has nothing to do with 
the Assyrian Babylon, but is rather an Arabic corruption (. Bab-al-yun ) of the Grcecized 
Egyptian Pi-Hapi-n-On or Per-Hapi-n-On (that is, ‘ The Nile City of On’), which was the 
island of Rodah opposite the fortress. Lane-Poole, p. 3, n. 2. In Arab times, it has been 
called Qasr al-Sham (that is, ‘Castle of the Candles’) because it was lit at night by candles 
or torches. 

2 The old Tendunias, to the south, not the north, of Babylon; Butler, p. 231 n. 

3 The old Egyptian City of ‘On’. 

4 His problematic personality was discussed in detail and identified as Cyrus by Butler, 
Appendix C, pp. 508-26. He was no Copt and that name is probably derived from the 
region of the Caucasus where he originated. 

5 Within the boundaries of Menufiya Province, an old Roman station on the road from 
Babylon to Alexandria, identified by Butler (pp. 16-17 n 0 on the authority of Quatremere 
as the modern Shabshlr. 


Constans II reinstated only after his father’s death in February 641. The usual 
policy of negotiation with the Arabs was reopened by Cyrus, who probably 
hoped against hope to retain the leadership of the Egyptian Church under the 
sponsorship of the invaders. The predicament of the native Alexandrian in¬ 
cluded not merely the surrender of the city to the Arabs in September 642, 
but also Cyrus’ approval that all able-bodied adults should pay the new 
master a poll tax of two gold dinars per head. It was possibly on this account 
that Alexandrians conspired with the Byzantine emperor, who responded by 
sending a fleet of 300 sail under the Admiral Manuel. The Greeks were able 
to recapture the city temporarily, but were soon driven out of it by treachery 
from within. The Arabs dismantled its walls to prevent repetition of similar 
untoward events, and the fate of all Egypt was sealed under the Arab rulers. 
f Amr prided himself on having crowned his invasion by the seizure of 
Alexandria’s 4,000 palaces, 4,000 public baths, 400 theatres, and 40,000 rich 
poll-tax paying Jews out of a total population estimated at 600,000 men, not 
counting the women and children. 1 

The Arab invasion of Alexandria included the distressing episode of the 
burning of its great library by f Amr 2 who is said to have been only executing 
an order from Caliph "Umar. This romantic story, however, belongs to the 
realm of legend. It occurs first in the works of the Persian traveller f Abd 
al-Latlf al-Ba gh dadi 3 (d. 1231 a.d.) and the Jacobite Syrian prelate Bar 
Hebrasus 4 (d. 1286), that is, about six centuries after the invasion. They con¬ 
tend that on consultation w T ith the Commander of the Faithful in Mecca, 
f Umar supplied his general with the famous verdict that if the contents of the 
library agreed with the Qur’an, they were unnecessary, hence superfluous; 
and if they disagreed, they should be eliminated as dangerous to the spirit of 
Islam. In either case, the books had to be burnt. On receipt of this message it 
took f Amr the incredible period of six months to dispose of the immense 
contents of the library as fuel for the public baths of Alexandria. None of the 
contemporary chroniclers makes any reference to that story. Moreover, it is 
doubtful whether any traces of the Ptolemaic library survived until the advent 
of the Arabs. A major part of it is known to have been destroyed in the 
Alexandrian wars of Julius Caesar in 48 b.c. Later, in the fourth century 
a.d., the triumphant Christians are known to have committed many acts of 
systematic arson to obliterate the vestiges of pagan institutions, which must 
necessarily have touched the Museion or what remained of it. The nature of 
the papyrus scrolls and codices accumulated in the library was such that, from 
centuries of use they must have disintegrated long before the Arab Conquest. 

1 Butler, p. 360; Lane-Poole, p. 12. The latter quotes 70,000 Jews. 

2 Butler, pp. 401-26. 

3 Historia JEgypti Compendiosa , ed. J. White (Oxford, 1800), p. 114. 

4 Historia Dynastiarum , ed. E. Pococke (Oxford, 1663), p. 114 Latin, p. 180 Arabic text. 


In other words, the story of firing the public baths with the Alexandrian 
library should be repudiated as a baseless and unhistoric invention. 

As to the position of the Copts in those troubled times, the rather confused 
contemporary material seems to show that they adopted a neutral policy. In 
spite of the fact that the Arabs were acquainted with the caravan routes on 
the edge of the desert, those in the interior of Egypt necessitated local guides, 
and these are said to have been the Jews and not the Copts. Nevertheless, the 
Coptic communities were totally estranged from any sympathy with their 
relentless Melkite persecutors and were consequently unwilling to offer them 
solace and aid. Since Justinian, the Byzantine armies had been divided into 
separate local units, and lacked the means for unified action. This fact and the 
hostile attitude of the native Copt demoralized the garrisons at the time of the 
great crisis. The obnoxious personality of Cyrus not only rendered positive 
resistance impossible but also prepared the way for speeding the imminent 
catastrophe. In those trying moments inEgyptian history,the Copts could not 
lose by the change of rulers. The Byzantines had tried to efface both religious 
and political liberty in Egypt, whereas the early Arabs came at least with the 
prospect of religious enfranchisement for the Copts, who were destined to 
lose political independence anyway. The attitude of the Muslims toward the 
people of the Book or Dhimmis would ensure under the Covenant of f Umar 
such religious status for the Copts as they had not enjoyed under the Byzan¬ 
tines for a long time. 

This new attitude became clear after the establishment of Arab rule. The 
monophysite patriarch Benjamin, for ten years a hunted fugitive from his 
Melkite pursuers, reappeared on the scene, and was revered by c Amr, who 
granted him safe conduct to discharge his church affairs in peace. The 
Patriarch forgave those of the clergy who had apostatized under duress to 
Monotheletism and restored many churches and monastic establishments. In 
his reign as well as in those of his successors, the Copts witnessed an unprece¬ 
dented revival of their national religion, literature and art with their complete 
and undisturbed liberation from Greek influences. In the government they 
were substituted for the many Greek functionaries badly needed for running 
the administration of the new province. On the other hand, it would be an 
error to assume that the Arabs favoured the Copts or that the Copts went out 
of their way to help the conquering Arabs. The truth appears to be that the 
Arabs did not make any sectarian distinction between Monophysite and 
Monothelite or Melkite, which alone was a tremendous relief to the Coptic 
community. The Copts, who had been living under religious terrorization 
and civil disability, then found themselves treated as the equals of the Mel- 
kites. It is noteworthy, however, that the Arabs did not oust leading Greek 
personalities in the administration simply to please the Copts. The Arabs 
were interested in the smooth levy of the taxation irrespective of any con- 


sideration. For instance, they retained three principal officers for whom the 
Copts harboured a great deal of hatred as former instruments of the Heraclian 
regime. These were Menas, prefect of Lower Egypt, and Sanutius, prefect of 
the Rif, and Philoxenus, prefect of Arcadia or the Iaiyum. 1 The historian of 
the Arab Conquest, Alfred J. Butler, gives the impression that the three were 
renegades, and even makes this amazing statement: c One almost begins to 
wonder whether the conduct of al-Muqauqus (Cyrus) himself could not be 
explained on the theory that he was a secret convert to the religion of 
Mohammed.’ 2 Apparently the local employees, tax collectors and provincial 
magistrates were Copts, and the Coptic language replaced the Greek in 
normal transactions until Arabic made its appearance in bilingual papyri. 

The Arabs were essentially interested in the state revenues, which consisted 
of a general tribute, known as the kharaj , and the poll-tax, or ji^ya, to be 
levied per capita on all able-bodied adult Christians, who were barred from 
Muslim military service and had to offer a substitute in cash. r Amr raised a 
total of twelve million gold dinars. 3 His tyrannical successor, f Abd-Allah ibn 
Sa'ad ibn al-Sarh, increased this already formidable amount by two more 
millions. This precipitated a series of local rebellions. The bloodiest of them 
was the Bashmuric uprising, which occurred in 829-30 in the marshlands of 
the lower Delta. The senseless obstinacy of the rebels ended with their 
removal beyond the sea to Syria after their inevitable defeat. The point is that 
Coptic complacency toward Arab dominion was not absolute, though on 
the whole there was a sense of relief from Byzantine religious brutality. 
General revenues kept declining under the Umayyad and Abbasid viceroys 
until they were standardized at three million dinars in the ninth century. 
This decline was partly the result of frequent conversion to Islam in order to 
escape the taxes on Christians. Such conversion became so frequent that at 
one point the Muslim governors seemed to discourage steady conversion in 
order to protect the state revenue. Gradually the Copts adapted themselves 
to the new circumstances and survived all further vicissitudes in a way 
which is in contrast to North African or Nubian Christianity. 

1 Butler, pp. 362-3. It has been asserted that Sanutius was a Copt and not a Greek as his 
name Shenuda or Schenute suggests (Kamel Salih Nakhla, pp. 106—7), an< I that he played 
an important part in the establishment of relations between his patriarch, Benjamin, and 
f Amr. 2 Butler, p. 263. 

3 To this must be added the taxes in kind, including grain, cattle, cloth, hospitality 
and all manner of daily articles needed by the Arab army. For any special study of this 
early Arab period in Egyptian history, it will be inevitable to consult the Arabic papyri, 
which contain innumerable specific details of social and economic life. The most important 
contribution in this field is Adolf Grohmann’s monumental publication Arabic Papyri in 
the Egyptian Library , 6 vols. (Cairo, 1934-62). Other more limited works are extant, such 
as: A. Dietrich, Arabiscbe Briefe aus der Papyrussammlung der Hamburger Staats und Universi- 
tats-Bib/iothek (Hamburg, 1955); Nabia Abbott, The Monasteries of the Fayyum (Chicago, 
1937). For more material, see works listed by Grohmann in his brief but excellent manual 
of papyrology From the World of Arabic Papyri (Cairo, 1952). 

H E C—D 


In summing up the benefits which the Copts reaped from the Arab Con¬ 
quest, we see that the first was perhaps religious enfranchisement. They were 
also able to appropriate many Melkite churches and religious establishments 
vacated by the Greeks. In the local administration they monopolized the 
government offices. They became the only scribes, tax collectors and magis¬ 
trates. A revival of Coptic culture also filled the vacuum created by the sud¬ 
den disappearance of Byzantine influence. The flow of capital outside the 
country under the governors of the Orthodox caliphate and the Umayyad 
dynasty was checked by the rise of independent local dynasties, including 
the Tulunids (868—905) and the Ikhshldids (935-69), who wrested Egypt 
from the Aboasid caliphate in Ba gh dad. These were followed by the even 
more independent Fatimid caliphate (969-1171). Christian disabilities, such 
as the imposition of a distinctive dress or the prohibition from horse riding, 
were rarely enforced. When the Umayyad governor 'Abdallah ibn 'Abd 
al-Malik issued his edict of 705 niaking Arabic the official language in all 
state transactions, this measure only resulted in an attempt by the Copts to 
master that tongue in addition to their own, which survived for some cen¬ 
turies in daily use. As a spoken language Coptic was discontinued some time 
in the late Middle Ages, though it is still used as a liturgical language in 
Coptic churches to the present day. The troubles in store for the Copts were 
largely due to individual royal whims rather than to a set policy of whole 
dynasties. It will be noticed that at times the Copts flourished considerably 
under Muslim domination. As a matter of fact, the miracle of their survival 
must be ascribed to two essential factors. In the first place, the calamities 
sustained by them under Arab rule were not continuous, and sporadic 
pressures upon them often gave way to periods of peace and understanding 
between the members of the conflicting faiths. Except in cases of madness, as 
in the reign of al-Hakim, a Muslim ruler never attempted complete anni¬ 
hilation of his Christian subjects. On the contrary, the Copts w T ere preserved 
as a fine source of revenue. In the second place, the racial characteristics of 
the Copts themselves, their unwavering loyalty to their church, their 
historic steadfastness toward the faith of their forefathers, and the cohesive 
elements in their social structure combined to render their community an 
enduring monument across the ages. Their special qualities were invariably 
appreciated even by their Muslim neighbours and by their rulers. Further, 
the Copts developed a certain ability for integrating themselves within the 
body politic of the Islamic state, but without losing their inner way of life 
and their religious identity. They survived all the hazards of a tumultuous 
life, and are still safe and strong, indeed an imperturbable minority. 


First Five Centimes 

With the re-establishment of peace and the declaration of religious liberty - 
or at least the equality between Monophysite and Melkite Christians in Arab 
eyes - the ostensible lowering of the Byzantine tribute of twenty million to 
the Arab kharaj of twelve, and the considerate attitude of the Arab governor 
toward the Coptic patriarch Benjamin, the rule of the Arabs augured well 
under f Amr ibn al- f As. In those days of drastic changes, the Copts must have 
had an exciting time with the withdrawal of the hateful Melkite authorities, 
both religious and military, as well as with the opportunities for appropri¬ 
ating the lands, homes and churches vacated by the Greeks. Except for a few 
loitering Greek renegades, the bulk of the administration fell to the Copts. 
The first serious setback occurred during the administration of f Amr’s 
successor, r Abd-Allah ibn Sa'ad, who exacted two millions more than his pre¬ 
decessor and undoubtedly enriched himself by other unknown extortions. 
In fact, this seems to have become the established pattern for the next two 
centuries under Umayyad and Abbasid rule. The caliphs made a habit of 
curtailing the periods of their governors’ tenure in order to prevent them 
from striking root and gaining independence in that rich province. According 
to the tables compiled by Stanley Lane-Poole, 1 Egypt had at least as many as 
108 governors during the first 226 years of Arab rule, that is, up to the year 
868, when the Tulunids succeeded in founding the first independent Muslim 
dynasty in Egypt. Consequently, none of those governors, who averaged 
about two years each in office, could have the interest of the country and the 
population at heart. In spite of their rapacity, the tribute kept falling steadily 
a fact which needs some explanation. If we overlook the occasional low 
Niles and plagues, the absence of a central policy of care for the canals, dykes 
and irrigation system resulted in irreparable damage to agriculture and 
reduced the paying capacity of the farmers. This took place despite the in¬ 
creasing financial imposts, the extension of the poll-tax to the monks and 
priests (who had hitherto been exempt from it), a new register 2 which 
brought more landed property under taxation, and the use of the shorter 
Muslim lunar calendar year 3 instead of the Coptic solar calendar as the basis 
of computation. 

The imposition of a much higher tribute at a time when personal income 

1 Egypt in the Middle Ages , pp. 45-58. 

2 That is, cadastre or ‘ rdk ’ ordained by the governor, 'Ubayd-Allah ibn al-Ahdath, in 

the years 724-5, thus raising the tribute to four million dinars in spite of the low price ot 
grain at the time. The contemporary papyri show that the surveyors oftentimes exagger¬ 
ated their estimates on the government side. An example is quoted of an estate of 139 
acres estimated to be 200 and, on complaint, the revised figure was decided at 148; Jacques 
Tagher, Aqbat rva-Muslimun , p. 89. 3 Tagher, p. 89. 


was declining incited a rebellious temper among the natives. But this was 
suppressed with ferocity. Between 739 and 773 five rebellions flared up, and it 
is noteworthy that some Muslims joined the Coptic rebels in protesting against 
the financial oppression which befell both elements of the population. The 
most serious of all the uprisings was the Bashmuric rebellion of 831, during 
the caliphate of al-Ma’mun, already mentioned. After the return to peace, the 
Caliph visited Egypt and conciliated its inhabitants. But the pressures were 
renewed until 869 when the last Abbasid governor, Ahmad ibn al-Mudabbir, 
resorted to making an accurate census of all the ecclesiastical hierarchy and 
the monks in their monasteries, and enjoined the reigning Patriarch Sanutius 
to pay a lump sum for the lot. In desperation the Patriarch appointed two 
delegates from among the leading Copts, Sawiris and Ibrahim 1 by name, to 
submit to the Caliph al-Mu tazz (866-9) ln Baghdad a petition pleading for 
relief. This seems to have been granted. Exemption of men of religion from 
capitation and safeguards of religious tolerance were again confirmed by his 
successor al-Muhtadi (869-70). It was in the reign of the latter that the 
Tulunids (869—905), followed by the Ikhshldids (93 5 —69), declared their 
independence in Egypt. Apparently, the Copts as a whole fared well with 
those non-Arab rulers, who refused to replace ibn al-Mudabbir with an Arab 
after his withdrawal, but used the native Copts in key positions under their 
own direct surveillance. This step proved to be beneficial to both the Copts 
and the new rulers; and the only serious trouble which befell the patriarch 
personally was the result of a conspiracy within the Church by an excom¬ 
municated bishop. 2 Ibn Tulun owes the two greatest structures of his reign 
to a Christian architect called ibn Katib al-Firghani. These are the Nilometer 
at the southern tip of the Rawda island and the great mosque bearing his 
name. Both are still among the greatest Islamic monuments in Cairo. It may 
be mentioned that for the mosque ibn Katib devised the use of the pointed 
arch about two centuries before its prototype appeared in Gothic architecture 
in Europe. 3 

1 Ya'qub Nakhla Rufaila’s Arabic History of the Coptic Nation (Cairo, 1898), p. 94. 

The reigning Patriarch was then Kh a il III, and the bishop in question was the bishop 
of Sakha in Lower Egypt. 1 he mediators on behalf of the patriarch included two clerks 
ln the administration, both sons of Musa, who was ibn Tulun’s secretary. Also two other 
clerks in the office of the Wazir Ahmad al-Mardlni named Yuhanna and Alakarius pleaded 
w ith their chief to speak to ibn Tulun, which he did. The patriarch was accordingly 
released from prison upon signing a debt warrant of 20,000 dinars, which sum the latter 
clerks guaranteed as the price of his freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. Apparently 
he paid the first half and re-entered prison for the second half until Ahmad’s son Khumara- 
w ayh set him free; ibid., pp. 98—100. It is interesting to know that in the attempt to raise 
the money, the patriatch sold church property, including a Fustat church, to the Jews, 
who still hold it as a synagogue to this day; ibid., p. 100, n. 1. 

Ibid., pp. 101—2; S. Lane-Poole, Cairo (London, 1898), pp. 20—4. The devout Christian 
architect used new material and built brick columns to avoid the usual system of taking 
marble columns from existing churches. The minaret has an outer staircase identical with 


The real grandeur and subsequent decline of the Coptic nation in Islamic 
times took place under the Fatimed caliphs, 1 who invaded Egypt from 
Tunisia in 969 and held it till 1171. They founded the city of Cairo, 2 which 
became the centre of an empire extending from Morocco to Syria. There 
they accumulated immense riches and fostered cultural activities until Cairo 
became the great peer of Baghdad in the Islamic world. The early Fatimid 
caliphs were extremely tolerant toward the Christians and the Jews. One of 
the key personalities in the administration of the first Fatimid caliph to take 
residence in Cairo, al-MiTizz (952-75), was a Copt by the name of Quzman 
ibn Mina, surnamed abu al-Yumn, who remained a faithful Christian. He 
became the caliph’s viceroy in Syria and displayed great ability, dexterity and 
integrity in the discharge of his duties during the difficult wars with the 
Turks. He died a celibate and placed his immense wealth in the hands of the 
Coptic patriarch for the benefit of the Church and of the poor in his nation. 3 

Al-Mu e izz appears to have favoured the Copts to such an extent that a 
considerable legend about his sympathies was woven by some Christian 
writers. 4 His son and successor, aMAzIz (976-96), continued his father’s 

another in Samarra on the Upper Tigris. Whether the architect was Christian Coptic or 
Armenian is not easy to say with precision, though the Coptic historians describe him 
as a Copt. 

1 Descendants of Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of 'Ali, his 
cousin and fourth successor. They were Shi ite believers in their divine right of succession 
as against the Sunnite or Orthodox caliphs. At present, the sect resides mainly in Iran. 
On the Fatimids see DeLacy O’Leary, A Short History of the Fatimid Caliphate (London, 
1923); Hassan Ibrahim Hassan, Al-F'atimiyun fi Alisr (Cairo, 1932). 

2 From the Arabic al-Qahirah (The Victorius), Cairo is the last phase in the development 
of the mediaeval city. The other phases are al-Fustat (The Pavilion), established by f Amr 
on the edge of the desert near the Fort of Babylon; al-'Asakir (The Camp), developed by 
the Umayyad and Abbasid governors as a royal residence north of Fustat or Old Cairo; 
al-QataF (The Wards, or Fiefs), established further north-cast by Ibn Tulun and kept by 
the Ikhshids; and at last al-Qahirah al-Mahrusah (Cairo The Guarded), still further beyond 
al-QataF where al-Azhar Mosque still stands; see Lane-Poole, pp. 2-6. 

3 Rufaila’s History , pp. 108-11; Jacques Tagher, p. 123. 

4 One legend states that ibn Killis, in an attempt to embarrass the Copts, brought to 
the attention of the Caliph al-Mu f izz the verse where Matthew (xvii, 20) records Jesus’ 
saying, Tf ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove 
hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.’ 
The caliph thus called the patriarch, who confirmed the verse, and consequently the caliph 
commanded him to perform the miracle to prove the truth of his religion. 'The patriarch 
and the community then kept vigil and prayer for three days and three nights, and as he 
dozed inside the sanctuary, the virgin directed him in a dream to a humble and unlettered 
tanner at a given spot. In this wise he found his man of faith, and in a picturesque per¬ 
formance the Muqattam hill was moved while the hierarchy and the community chanted 
a hymn of mercy behind the poor and unassuming tanner. 

Another legend is that the caliph was so impressed by the performance that he began 
a systematic enquiry into the Christian religion, until he became convinced of its truth 
and was baptized and spent the latter part of his life in Christian meditation at a monastery 
after abdicating in favour of his son. The story was revived by the late Morkos Smaika 


policy of religious tolerance and married a Melkite Christian under whose 
influence he appointed Arsenius and Aristides, his brothers-in-law, as 
Melkite patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch. He suppressed all social 
distinctions between Muslims and Dhimmi Christians, and appointed Chris¬ 
tians to high places in the administration. He excused the Copts from ail 
extraordinary taxes and permitted the patriarch to restore old churches and 
even to build new ones. When the infuriated Muslim populace attacked the 
churches, he granted the patriarch armed protection and a decree to complete 
the restoration with an offer of financial reparations. The patriarch gratefully 
accepted all but the monetary aid, which was returned to the treasury. He 
permitted those who went over to Islam under compulsion and full liberty 
to return to Christianity and is said to have refrained from punishing a Muslim 
who became a Christian convert. 1 Both measures were strictly contrary to the 
spirit of Islamic jurisprudence. 

The Copts were allowed at that time to carry the highest honours and 
titles of state. 2 Their technicians received every encouragement and excelled 
in the delicate arts and crafts for which the age has been known. Jewellers, 
cabinet-makers, fullers, dyers, smiths, builders, painters, engineers, archi- 

Pasha, former director of the Coptic Museum, but was vehemently rejected by the noted 
Muslim writers Ahmad Zaki Pasha and Md. 'Abdallah 'Enan; cf. Jacques Tagher, pp. 

I 20-2. 

The former story is elaborated in the History of the Patriarchs (II, pp. 93-6 Arabic; 
pp. 140-5 English), but there is no mention of the second. The said vigil was kept in the 
Mu llaqa Church of Our Lady in Old Cairo, and the patriarch was Ephraem the Syrian 
(975-8 a.d.), originally a rich layman of great piety. 

1 Jacques Tagher, p. 125, on the authority of Quatremere, quotes the name of a Christian 
convert from Islam as ‘Vasah’ and retranscribes it into Arabic as ‘Wasa° in the reign of 
al-Mu'izz. Tagher probably means fit. Quatremere, Memoires geographiques et historiques 
sur nfgypte et sur quelques contrees voisines , 2 vols. (Paris, 1811) without mentioning the 
exact reference. A whole chapter on the same episode appears in Neale’s History of the 
Eastern Church: Patriarchate of Alexandria , Vol. II, pp. 15, 193-6, but he does not mention 
his source for ‘The History of Vasah’. It is possible that this is al-Wadih ibn al-Raja’, 
who became a Christian in the patriarchate of Philotheus (979-1003) and in the reign of 
al-Hakim (996-1020), not the reign of al-Mu'izz. The details of his story are given by 
his friend and contemporary, the historian Sawiris ibn al-Muqaffa', bishop of al-Ash- 
munein, author of the History of the Patriarchs , Vol. II, pt. 2, pp. 100-15. 

2 Rufaila, p. 142, mentions the following: ‘al-Ra’is, Hibat Allah, al-Amgad, al-As'ad, 
al-shaikh, Nagib al-Daulah, Taj al-Daulah, and Fakhr al-Daulah.’ All these titles are 
reserved for Wazirs and high functionaries. Here are some other famous names of Copts 
under the Fatimids: Master Surur al-Julal, Intendant of Caliph al-Mustansir; Abu al-Fakhr 
ibn Sa’Id, and his children, Chiefs of Personnel; Abu al-Hasan al-Amah, Caliph al-FIafiz’s 
private secretary; al-As'ad ibn al-Miqat, wealthy notable accused by Shawar of relations 
with the crusaders; Abu al-Futuh ibn al-MIqat, head of military personnel; Abu al-Yumn 
ibn Makrawah ibn Zanbur, treasurer and prefect of al-RIf; Abu Sa'ad Mansur ibn Abi 
al-Yumn, wazir of Caliph al-Mustan$ir; Abu al-Fadl ibn al-Usquf, secretary of Badr al- 
Jamali; Master Zuwayn, Caliph al-Hafiz’s intendant; Shaikh Ahzam, state auditor; etc.; cf. 
Rufaila, pp. 162-9. 


tects, manufacturers of plain and stained glass, and other workmen flourished 
in those times and produced objects of art which are still the pride of both the 
Coptic Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo as well as the sur¬ 
viving churches and mosques of that century. The Copts produced many 
famous physicians, scribes and writers, although their most prolific literary 
productivity seems to have been concentrated in the following Ayyubid 
period. In Fatimid times, however, the Copts could justly pride themselves 
on the outstanding History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church f compiled 
from old Coptic sources in various monasteries, especially the Monastery of 
St Macarius in the Nitrean Desert, by Sawiris ibn al-Muqaffa r , bishop of 
al-Ashmunain, a contemporary of the infamous Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr 
Allah (996-1021). Sawiris left behind him other minor works on theological 
subjects. 2 Even more picturesque, are the theological discourses by a convert 
from Islam named al-Wadih ibn al-Raja 5 , 3 the personal friend and contem¬ 
porary of Bishop Sawiris, as well as those of another convert from Juda¬ 
ism called r Abd al-MassIh al-Isra’Ili, 4 who wrote in the eleventh century. 
Contemporary patriarchs, 5 including Christodoulus (1047-77), Cyril II 
(1078-92) and Gabriel ibn Tarlk (1131-45), composed various sets of canons 
and encyclicals to define facets of the faith and to reform the morals of the 
Copts who had taken to the notorious habit of keeping concubines. Other 
eminent social and religious reformers of this age were Abu Yasir ibn 
al-Qastal and the writer Marcus ibn al-Qunbar. 6 

The glory of the Copts under Fatimid rule was darkened by one of the 
most senseless persecutions in mediaeval times by the Caliph al-Hakim, 7 
presumably a schizophrenic maniac who set himself to the bloodthirsty 
torture and killing of Christians, Jews and Muslims in turn. First he enforced 
distinctive dress on Christians, whom he commanded to wear a five-pound 
cross, and on Jews, who had to hang a heavy bell round the neck. Christians 
were dismissed from the administration, and their churches were ordered to 
be demolished by letting loose the mob on them. Most serious was probably 
his levelling the Holy Sepulchre to the ground. Confiscation of property, 
pillage, humiliation, imprisonment, executions and all manner of diabolical 
terrorization became the order of the day. A Jewish street was blocked and 
all its inhabitants perished. The entrance to a public bath for women was 
walled up and the bathers were entombed alive within. Orders banning 
women from appearing on the streets were issued, and certain food pre¬ 
scriptions were forbidden on pain of death. Toward the end of his reign he 

1 See above Chapter 2, p. 25, n. 1. 

2 Graf, Gescbichte der Christlichen arabischen Liferatur , Vol. II, pp. 295-318. 

3 Ibid., II, 318-19. 4 Ibid., II, 319-20. 

5 Ibid., II, 321-7. 6 Rufaila, pp. 149-57; Graf, II, 327-32. 

7 Contemporary of the Patriarchs Philotheus (979-1003) and Zaccharias (1004-32); 
see History of the Patriarchs , Vol. II, pt. 2, pp. 100-51 (Arabic) and pp. 150-228 (English). 


fell under the spell of some Christian monks and was a frequent visitor to a 
monastery south of Cairo in the Helouan desert. The immediate outcome was 
some relief for the Christians and more stringency against the Sunnite 
Muslims. Finally he followed the Ismahlite doctrines as preached by a certain 
al-Darazi (d. 1019), who imparted his name to the Druze sect, and al-Hakim 
declared himself the incarnation of Allah on earth and expected to be wor¬ 
shipped by his subjects. His mysterious disappearance while practising 
astrology on the Muqattam hills was explained in different ways. Some said 
he retired to a life of oblivion in a Christian monastery, while his followers 
decided that he survived in a divine form until his next return. The truth is 
probably that he was killed in a conspiracy organized by his own sister, Sitt 
al-Mulk, whose own life was endangered by the Caliph’s disapproval of her 
character and morality. 

The subsequent story of the Copts under the remaining Fatimid caliphs is 
a mixed one. Religious liberty was restored together with most of the des¬ 
troyed churches. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt by al- 
ff 1^. s immediate successor, al z^alur (1020-36). A major event for Coptic 
history was the transfer of the patriarchal seat from Alexandria to Damru, 1 
which the historian of the patriarchs called a second Constantinople, with its 
seventeen imposing churches. Ultimately the patriarchate was settled in 
Cairo, nearer the caliph’s court and under his protection. All this happened 
in the reign of Christodoulus (1046-77), whose successor, Cyril II, took 
residence in the keep of St Michael’s Church on the island of Rawda, near 
the thickly populated Coptic district of Old Cairo. Coptic public festivities, 2 
suspended by al-Hakim, were again resumed and the state officially partici¬ 
pated in them. The Wazir Badr al-Jamali, of Christian Armenian origin, 
favoured the Copts and imported thousands of Armenian families to live 
with them in Egypt. Excellent relations were established with the Christian 

1 An ancient city in the Gharbiya Province in the Delta, mentioned in pre-Islamic 
sources with its early martyrs. E. Amelineau, La Geographic de I’Egypte a VLpoque Copte 
(Paris, 1893), pp. 505-6. 

2 The chief public festivities of the Copts which have been described by most mediaeval 
writers and travellers such as Mas r udi, Musabbahi, Qualqashandi, Maqrlzi, ibn Iyas and 
the rest are: (a) The Epiphany, celebrated with great pomp. The torches on the banks of 
the Nile, the lighted boats and the crowds having the annual ‘health-giving’ dip in the 
River made a very picturesque scene at night. The caliph, his court and harem attended. 
(b) The Nauruz or Coptic New Year’s day, observed with renewed clothing, lavish 
banquets, lots of fruit. The day was a general public holiday and the state distributed 
money to the employees on the occasion, (e) Christmas was the time when lanterns were 
hung above all doors, fish and sweetmeats were distributed everywhere, and everybody 
high or low bought candles, toys, candy and new clothing for the children, (d) Feast of 
St George the Martyr, during which the relic of his finger was dipped in the Nile water 
with a religious service so that the flood might take place. As a rule the government minted 
special gold coins tor distribution to its employees on this occasion. Cf. Jacques Taghcr, 
pp. 146-50. 


kingdoms of Nubia and Abyssinia through the good offices of the patriarch. 
Differences within the Church were settled in a synod 1 convened by order of 
Badr al-Jamali. The synod is revealing since it showed the extent of the 
episcopate in Egypt at the time. Coptic troubles in the later Fatimid era were 
only a phase of the great confusion and revolt within the court as well as 
famine and plague that prevailed in the country. The Turkish and Sudanese 
divisions in the caliph’s bodyguard fought an internecine battle of exter¬ 
mination, to the detriment of the palace. Then national disaster befell 
Egypt, and the weakened caliphs were caught between the crusader, their 
own Wazir Shawar, and the incoming Sunnite Turkmans of Shirkuh, who 
brought with him a young nephew by the name of Saladin (Salah al-DIn). In 
this situation, where conflicts of race, religion, sect and interest played havoc 
before the dwindling and powerless throne of the caliphs, the logical result 
was attained when the Sunnite wazir suppressed the potent Shfite caliphate. 
Thus Saladin was able to inaugurate the Ayyubid sultanate (1169-1250), 
which coincided with the age of the Crusades. 

Age of the Crusades 

At the time of the First Crusade (1096-9) and the establishment of the Latin 
kingdom of Jerusalem in the last decade of the eleventh century, Fatimid 
power was vested in the hands of the Wazir al-Afdal, son and successor of 
the famous Badr al-Jamali, a Muslim convert of Christian Armenian extrac¬ 
tion, who had followed a lenient policy toward the Copts. In fact, Fatimid 
policies on the whole vis-a-vis the Copts since the disappearance of al- 
Hakim were shaped by two main factors: the undying popular hostility of the 
lower Muslim classes, who thirsted for pillage and hated the Christian tax- 
collector, and the persistent need of the central administration for funds. 
The caliphs often failed to bridle the Muslim mob and resorted to pacifying 

1 Rufaila, pp. 147-8, mentions that forty bishops attended besides five absentees for 
great age or great distance. Bishop Isodorus, in his Arabic History of the Church , 2 vols. 
(Heliopolis, 1915-23), II, 313-15, gives details of 22 names from Lower Egypt and an 
equal number from Upper Egypt in addition to five absentees, making a total of 49 
bishops for the whole of Egypt in Fatimid times. Numerous lay archons were also present. 
The authoritative lists compiled by H. Municr (Kecueil des listes episcopales de Veglise copte , 
pub. Societe d’Archeologie Copte in the series ‘Textes et Documents’, Cairo, 1943) on 
p. 27 cites 47 bishops in addition to three from the metropolitan area (misr, Giza and al- 
Khandaq) who were summoned by Badr al-Jamali to the synod, besides others who were 
unable to attend. It is interesting to note that Municr listed 66 episcopal dioceses at the 
peace of Constantine besides Philae, created later by Athanasius (p. 1). He also quotes a 
John Ryland MS R53, dated 1853 anc l probably based on the fourteenth-century list of 
Abul-Barakat ibn Kabar naming 99 bishoprics in Lower and Upper Egypt (pp. 53-7). 
Pocoke’s list of 1722 mentions 83 secs (pp. 58-62). 


the populace by wholesale dismissal of Copts from the administration. But 
they soon found out that good government could be conducted only with the 
help of the unpopular Copts, who were consequently restored to office. 
However, the patriarch was not always seized or imprisoned in response to 
popular Muslim outcry. On numerous occasions such violence was pre¬ 
cipitated from within the church by a vicious monk or bishop. The worst 
example occurred in the reign of Christodoulos (i047-77), 1 when a monk 
named Colluthos submitted a calumnious report against his superior, who 
had refused him preferment. Consequently the authorities arrested Christo¬ 
doulos at Damru and confiscated six thousand dinars from the Church 
treasury. His successor, Cyril II (1078-1102), was maligned by Yuhanna, 
bishop of Sakha, 2 and only a synod of forty-seven bishops saved him from 
ruin. 3 

The personal tolerance of the majority of the Fatimid caliphs did not lessen 
their desire to raise funds under any pretext from their Coptic subjects. 
This lust for, or perhaps lack of, funds increased the rate of ordinary or extra¬ 
ordinary taxes, while the wars of the Franks in Syria called for more expen¬ 
diture. The nation had to bear the brunt of the added burden, and the Copts 
were always the first victims. It was only normal at the outbreak of the 
Crusades for Muslim rulers to suspect Coptic sympathies with their co¬ 
religionists who descended from western Europe on the Holy Land. What 
did they know about Chalcedon, Monophysitism and Diophysitism? All 
were Christians, and the Muslim ruler of Egypt had to keep watch and im¬ 
pose more exactions. This was the attitude adopted in official circles through¬ 
out the disastrous era of the Crusade. 

On the other hand, from the Coptic point of view the Crusades proved to 
be one of the greatest calamities which befell the communities of Eastern 
Christians. It is true that they had never lived on a bed of roses under the 
rule of Muhammadan dynasties, and they never expected to receive the full 
measure of equality with their Muslim neighbours. That had to wait until the 
dawn of liberty and democracy came in our own times. The Copts realized 
that they had to give up many material privileges in order to retain their 
spiritual heritage. Before the Crusades, however, they adapted themselves to 
the conditions of Islamic rule without the loss of their way of life, and were 
generally accepted and often very highly revered by the caliphs. They were 
the clerks, tax-collectors and treasurers of the caliphate. Heads of state always 
trusted their deftness and integrity, and they seemed somehow to be able to 

1 History of the Patriarchs , Vol. II, p. 180 (Arabic), pp. 274-5 (English). 

2 In the Gharbiya Province inside the Delta, mentioned frequently in the Coptic 
Synaxarium and the Chronicle of John of Nikiou at the time of the Arab Conquest; 
Amelineau, Geographic , p. 410. 

3 History of the Patriarchs , Vol. II, pp. 213-16 (Arabic), pp. 333-7 (English); Rufaila, 
pp. 146-9. 


make themselves indispensable in public service. The Crusades, being the 
Holy Wars of the Cross, antagonized the followers of Muhammad toward 
all ‘worshippers of the Cross’, whether Latin, Greek or Coptic, and so a new 
agonizing chapter began in the Copts’ unending patience. From the oppo¬ 
site side, the catastrophe was even more disastrous, for the Latins looked 
upon the Eastern Christian Monophysites as outcasts and schismatics, worse 
than heretics. Copts, Jacobites and Armenians alike fell in that category, and 
the Maronites of Lebanon were saved only by submitting to the authority of 
Rome, though they clung to their eastern ecclesiastical customs. Latin 
hostility toward the eastern Christians showed itself in prohibiting them 
from performing the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre. 
The devout nature of Coptic pilgrims made the visit to the Holy Places a 
binding duty on all who could undertake it. To be deprived of kneeling at 
the Lord’s Sepulchre and earning the blessings of walking in the steps of the 
Master was a tremendous disability which shocked Coptic imagination and 

An interregnum of more than two years in the patriarchate after the death 
of Macarius II in 1128 can be partly explained by two factors. In the first 
place, the community was so impoverished that it found great difficulty in 
raising the three to six thousand dinars to pay the state treasury for the issue 
of the decree of nomination of the new patriarch. This was essentially due to 
the burden of extraordinary taxation for the war with the Franks. In the 
second place, the Coptic leaders were afraid that the wazir might refuse to 
sanction any Christian election at all because of the state of international 
affairs. Furthermore, the situation was made still more difficult by two prin¬ 
cipal functionaries who harboured great hatred for all Christians: one a 
Muslim, the other a Sumerian named Ibrahim, who misled the caliph into 
believing that the Copts collected the Church income and sent it to aid the 
Franks. 1 The caliph immediately ordered the confiscation of all available 
Coptic funds, whether ecclesiastical or secular. The harrying of the Copts 
continued until these two men were removed from the scene by assassination 
during a revolt of the armed forces. They were replaced by a Melkite 
Christian through whose intercession the Wazir Ahmad, grandson of Badr 
al-Jamali, allowed the Copts to submit a nomination for patriarch. The 
choice fell upon a scribe in the Diwan by the name of Abul- c Ala’, a celibate 
whose career and character were above reproach. The new Patriarch Gabriel 
ibn Tarlk (1131-45), this being his name after consecration, steered his ship 
well in those tempestuous days. 2 

Fatimid rule ended with a calamity that affected the Copts more than the 

1 Rufaila, pp. 158-9. 

2 Kamil Salih Nakhla wrote the only full-volume biography in Arabic of this patriarch 
(Cairo, 1947). See pp. 37 and 44 for confiscations and increased poll-tax. 

94 • the copts under Arab rule 

Muslims. This was the burning of the ancient capital of al-Fustat in 1168 by 
Shawar, the wazir of the last caliph al-'Adid (1160-71), in order to save it 
from falling into the hands of Amalric, the Latin king of Jerusalem, who 
aimed at using it as a base for the conquest of the whole of Egypt. Shawar 
decided to cut short the prospects of a crusading victory by pouring twenty 
thousand barrels of naphtha on the strategic city of Fustat, and his men used 
ten thousand torches to set it ablaze. The massive conflagration lasted fifty- 
four days, and the population fled. 1 Coptic historians 2 give the impression 
that the Copts were a majority at Fustat, and all became destitute overnight. 
This was another calamitous by-product of the Crusades in the story of the 

At that time, a tremendous change occurred in Egyptian history. While 
the Shifite Fatimids were imperilled by crusading inroads, the armies of the 
Sunnite Sultan Nur-al-Dln in Syria came under his general Shirkuh to assist 
in the defence of Egypt against their Christian common enemy. After the 
withdrawal of the Crusaders, however, they stayed under the pretext of pro¬ 
tecting the Caliph. Shortly afterwards, Shawar was assassinated, and the 
Caliph paradoxically named the Sunnite Shirkuh as his wazir. In Shirkuh’s 
train was his young nephew Saladin, who took the reins of the wazirate on 
his uncle’s demise. A change of dynasty became imminent and, upon the 
death of the last Fatimid, he at once suppressed their shadowy caliphate and 
acceded to power in Egypt. The transitional period between the Fatimids and 
Ayyubids was a very sad one of confusion and insecurity for all. Saladin in¬ 
augurated his rule as wazir by the dismissal of the Copts from office, a 
measure which he had to repeal in the interest of good administration after 
the stabilization of affairs. The humiliation of the Copts was made public by 
the enforcement of distinctive dress and the prohibition from riding horses. 
Heavy fines were imposed on them and they had to sell most of their property 
to meet the new exactions. Many surrendered their lands and liberties to the 
Arabians for protection, and others professed the faith of Islam and were 
saved. In particular, those in high offices chose the latter means to retain their 
positions and their lives. The outstanding example was that of an old and 
influential Coptic family from Asiut. Its head, Zakariya ibn Abi al-Mallh ibn 
Mammati, pleaded in vain for relief from the obnoxious disabilities and taxes. 
Finally he changed his first name and became a Muslim along with all his 
family. Thus he was able to keep his high offices of war secretary and 
treasurer of the kingdom, honours which he transmitted to his son. He was 
a contemporary of the last Fatimid caliph and of Sultan Saladin. He was a 
poet of no mean merit and a writer of unusual distinction, best known for a 

1 Lanc-Poole, Egypt in the Middle Ages , pp. 184-5; DcLacy O’Leary, pp. 240-2; Rufaila, 
pp. 159-60, contends that the majority of the inhabitants of Fustat were Copts. 

2 See, for instance, Rufaila, p. 159. 


treatise on the state of Egypt 1 in Saladin’s time, including one of the oldest 
mediaeval registers of the country. He died at Aleppo in 1209. 

Saladin’s most enduring monument was the Cairo Citadel, built for him on 
the Muqattam hills by two Coptic architects, Abu Mansur and Abu Mash- 
kur. 2 In Alexandria, however, the Ayyubid authorities decided to pull down 
St Mark’s Cathedral, 3 overlooking the two harbours of the city, on the pre¬ 
text that it was by nature a great castle where the Crusaders might fortify 
themselves should they descend on Alexandria. Saladin also sent an ex¬ 
pedition to chastise the Christian kingdom of Nubia as well as the unruly 
Coptic elements in remote parts of Upper Egypt. The year 1173 saw the first 
serious and destructive Muslim invasion of Nubia, where the fortified 
monastery of St Simeon near Aswan and another at Ibrlm were destroyed and 
many inhabitants including the Monophysite bishop were imprisoned and 
sold in the slave market. The prosperous Coptic city of Quft was also levelled 
to the ground and has ever since remained a poor village. 

With the victory of Saladin over the Crusaders, culminating in the fall of 
Jerusalem in 1187, the Ayyubids became composed and their policy of 
intolerance toward the Copts changed. The sultan granted them a monastic 
establishment adjacent to the Holy Sepulchre, which they own to the present 
day. Some regained their high offices in the state and many recaptured their 
lost wealth and prosperity. Saladin selected a Copt - Safiy al-Dawla ibn Abi 
al-Ma e ali, surnamed ibn Sharafi - as his private secretary; and ibn al-MIqat, 
another Copt, rose to the headship of the war office in the reign of al- c Adil 
Sayf-al-DIn (1199-1218), known as Saphadin in Western chronicles. In the 
Crusade of Damietta (1218), its Christian inhabitants suffered much at the 
hands of the Latins; while in the fighting of 1249-50 against Louis IX’s in¬ 
vasion of Egypt, names of notable Copts were found on the side of the 
Sultan. 4 

Until the age of the Ayyubids, the Coptic language was still in use, though 
it was felt that Arabic was a serious menace to its survival. During this period, 

1 KitdbQawawin y al-Dawawin , ed. A. S. Atiya (Cairo, 1943); for ibn Mammati’s biography, 
see pp. 8-28; for the ‘ rok ’ or cadastre of Egypt, see pp. 85-231. The book also includes 
chapters on the Nile, irrigation, canals, dykes, agriculture, survey, state offices, minerals, 
weights and measures, finance, customs forests, seasons and the agricultural calendar, etc. 
the book shows great learning and authority. The original copy prepared for Saladin 
with all the details of land acreage and taxation is lost, but what remains in other ancient 
manuscripts is invaluable. This is one of ibn Alammati’s numerous works. 

2 Rufaila, p. 170. 

3 Built by Patriarch Agathos (662-80 a.d.), who succeeded Benjamin I (623-62 a.d.) 
within sight of the Arab Conquest. It was situated on the ancient site of Baucalis and was 
of imposing dimensions. The Copts are said to have made an offering of 2,000 dinars to 
save it from destruction, but in vain. 

4 Rufaila, pp. 183-9, reports a great number of names of people who distinguished 
themselves either in the administration or by the acquisition of vast fortunes or by their 
great learning. 


therefore, a class of Coptic scholars arose who wrote some of the most im¬ 
portant Coptic grammars and compiled admirable dictionaries to help pre¬ 
serve the language. The Copts had their schools attached to the churches, and 
manuscripts were deposited there for the use of their children. 1 Amongst 
those who particularly distinguished themselves were Aulad (= sons of) 
al- r Assal, who flourished around the first half of the thirteenth century. 2 
Three of them rose to high office in the Ayyubid administration, and all were 
highly educated writers with a profound knowledge of Coptic and Arabic in 
addition to Greek. Among the works of other writers of the period, the 
history of the churches and monasteries of Egypt and neighbouring coun¬ 
tries, attributed to Abu Salih the Armenian 3 but probably written by Abu 
al-Makarim Sa e ad-Allah ibn Girgis ibn Mas f ud, is invaluable. The world 
history of al-Makln Girgis ibn al-'Amld 4 (d. 1273), long known in Europe 
where it has been translated into various languages since the seventeenth 
century, had already served mediaeval Islamic chroniclers such as the eminent 
al-Maqrlzi (1364-1442). Yusab, bishop of Fuwwah, 5 who died after the year 
1257, wrote a worthy continuation to the History of the Patriarchs. Though it 
would be impossible to include all the writers of this era, we cannot overlook 
the name of Kirollos ibn Laqlaq, patriarch of the Church from 1235 to 1243. 
He was a rather controversial figure who left behind him numerous legal, 
liturgical and religious works. 6 

At the time of the outbreak of the Crusades, the Copts appear to have 
adopted a position of complete neutrality between the Latins and Saracens. 
Their involvement in their own local troubles left them on the defensive, 

1 Graf, II, 333-445, enumerates a considerable number of writers, including historians, 
exegetes, commentators, grammarians, and other categories. 

2 These were al-Safiy Abu al-Fada’il, al-As c ad Abu al-Faraj Hibat-Allah, and al-Mu’ta- 
man Abu Ishaq Ibrahim. All seem to have died before 1260. The varied nature of their 
writings in the field of religion and of philology calls for special research. They were the 
founders of Coptic linguistic studies, though it must be remembereed that they were not 
alone in this field. See Graf, II, 398, 403, 407 respectively. 

3 Ibid., II, 338-40. B. T. A. Evetts, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some 
Neighbouring Countries attributed to Abu Salih the Armenian (text, Oxford, 1894; trans. 1895). 

4 Graf., II, 348-51. Thomas Erpenius, Historia Saracenica (Leiden, 1625); Samuel 
Purchas, ‘The Saracenical Historie . . . written in Arabike by George Elmacin’, in 
Pure has. His Pilgrimage (London, 1626); Pierre Vattier, E’histoire mahometane on les quarante- 
n°,uf Chalifes du Macine (Paris, 1657). There are two fragments of that chronicle in manu¬ 
script in the Coptic Museum; see Marcus Smaika, Catalogue of the Coptic and Arabic Manu¬ 
scripts in the Coptic Museum, the Principal Churches of Cairo and Alexandria and the Monas¬ 
teries of Egypt, 2 vols. (Cairo, 1939-42), Vol. II, nos. 610 and 613, pp. 275-6. 

5 Graf, II, 369-71. Also known as ibn al-Mubarak, whose history has not yet been 
systematically published. It is still in manuscript in Dair al-Suryan and the private owner¬ 
ship of the heirs of the late Hegomenos Filutheus f Awad and Girgis Filutheus f Awad. 
Kamel Salih Nakhla used the first manuscript in compiling an Arabic biography of Pope 
Cyril III ibn Laqlaq (publ. at the Syrian Monastery of Our Lady, 1951). For Fuwah or 
Fouah, see Amclineau, Geographic, pp. 244-5, 484. 

6 Graf, II, 360-9; sec also note above. 


with only enough energy to meet the pressures of a whimsical ruler, or to 
raise the funds demanded of them. Then in moments of tolerance, they soon 
became reanimated and demonstrated an extraordinary power for quick 
recovery. This is evident from considering their lot under the Ayyubids. As 
the early persecutions subsided, they regained their former position in the 
administration and were able to accumulate lost wealth. Their vitality was 
demonstrated in literary productivity, and they even found it possible to 
participate in the defence of their Egyptian homeland against the Latin 
invaders, side by side with the Muslim neighbour. Unfortunately that healthy 
attitude did not last long after the change of dynasties. It has been said that 
Mamluk rule from 1250 was merely a continuation of the Ayyubid system. 
This may be true in certain aspects, such as their counter-crusading expan¬ 
sionist policy or the development of international trade. Otherwise the 
Mamluks were literally a dynasty of enfranchised slaves whose Islamic back¬ 
ground was only skin-deep. They did not share the aspirations or even speak 
the language of their subjects. Assassination followed assassination in their 
internecine wars, and their unity only became a reality in the face of a 
common enemy from the outside. Insecurity and increasing poverty under 
their rule drove the natives into reckless desperation. Whenever the Copts 
rose to wealth and power for the simple reason that they developed a genius 
for the management of state finance, the destitute populace clamoured for 
their dismissal from office. Mob fury became too overpowering even for the 
Mamluk despots to keep it under control. Destruction of Coptic churches 
became so serious a menace that in 1320 some Coptic monks retaliated by 
secret arson, and many mosques with hundreds of houses were thus burnt to 
the ground. In addition to the sporadic cases of violence and popular per¬ 
secution, the records show that repeated dismissals of the Copts took place 
during the period from 1279 to 1447. Every time this happened, complete 
paralysis in the machinery of the state ensued, and the ruler had to resort to 
the only segment of Egyptian society that could mend the deteriorating 
position. It was a vicious circle, and the Crusades merely intensified Mamluk 
hatred of the indispensable Copt. In the Cairo region alone fifty-four churches 
are reported as having been destroyed during that period, in addition to a 
number of monasteries. Several Christians nominally professed Islam and 
are said to have persecuted the Muslims under cover of conversion. 1 

In the fourteenth century the difficulties of the Copts remained acute. In 
1365 the Crusaders of Alexandria plundered both Muslim and Copt with 

1 Macrizi, Geschichte der Copten , cd. F. Wiistcnfeld (Gottingen, 1845), PP* 2 9~33 (Arabic), 
70-81 (German); Rufaila, pp. 204-61; Jacques Tagher, pp. 172-206; A. S. Atiya, The 
Crusade in the Cater Middle Ages (1st ed., London, 1938; 2nd ed., New York, 1965), pp. 
272-8; W. Muir, The Mameluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt, 1260-1 j 17 a.d. (London, 1896), 
passim; S. Lane-Poole, Egypt in the Middle Ages, pp. 242 ff.; G. Wiet, E'Egypte arahe , pp. 
383 ff.; M. Fowler Christian Egypt, pp. 96 ff. 


equal ferocity. The trustee of a Coptic church, the crippled daughter of a 
priest named Girgis ibn Fada’il, had to surrender all her own fortune in order 
to rescue the church in spite of asserting her Christianity by signing the 
Cross. On the Muslim side, the authorities dragged the Coptic Patriarch 
Yuhannes X (1363-9) to the court, where he and his community were sub¬ 
jected to all manner of humiliation and confiscation of property. In later 
mediaeval times, however, a small measure of relief was caused by foreign 
intervention from three sources. The first was the emperor at Constan¬ 
tinople, himself harassed by the Ottoman Turks, who pleaded with the 
Mamluks on behalf of the Melkite minority in Egypt. The second was the 
king of Aragon, whose country was on good terms with Egypt, and who 
urged the reopening of churches in Egypt and the Holy Land. The third and 
most important was the negus of Ethiopia, who, to obtain relief for his co¬ 
religionists in Egypt, bargained with the sultan over retaliation against 
Abyssinian Muslims and the menace of deflecting the course of the Nile 

In the fifteenth century occurred the abortive attempt to bridge the gap 
between Rome on one side and the Copts and Abyssinians on the other at 
the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-9). Yuhannes,The Coptic abbot of St 
Antony, and Nicodemus, the prior of the Abyssinian Convent of Jerusalem, 
represented their respective nations on the council. Union was published and 
Yuhannes appears as a signatory of the Decretum pro Jacobites issued by Pope 
Eugenius IV. But the act of union remained in abeyance, and the popes con¬ 
tinued without avail to write urging the Copts to unite with Rome, even after 
the Turkish Conquest of 1516-17. In 1586 a strong delegation descended on 
the docile Patriarch Yuhannes XIV (1571-86) from Rome. A synod was 
convened to discuss union once more, and the patriarch prevailed upon many 
bishops for approval. Another act of union was ready for signature, when 
Yuhannes died overnight before putting his seal on it, and the movement was 
buried with him. 


The Ottoman Turks 

The disappearance of the Mamluk sultanate after the Turkish Conquest of 
Egypt by Selim I in 1517 did not mean the extermination of the Mamluks 
as a clan. In the reorganization of the state under the new sultan there was a 
twofold objective: first, to eliminate the possibility ol any adventurer wrest¬ 
ing the valuable province from the sultan’s hands, and second, to squeeze 
a rich annual tribute from the population. Thus Selim divided authority 
among three rivals in order to keep the balance of powder in his ow n hands. 
The viceroy, or pasha, was charged with collection of the tribute, and his 
tenure was usually a short one to prevent him from striking root in the 
country. Then,the powerful army garrison had its own independent council. 
Lastly, the Mamluks were entrusted with the local government of the pro¬ 
vinces. The system achieved the sultan’s principal aim admirably, but it also 
in the meantime brought about the political and financial ruination of 
Egypt. Without entering into the constitutional details of Ottoman govern¬ 
ance, it may be sufficient here to note that the country became prey to three 
taxing agencies instead of one, and Mamluk misrule persisted with its usual 
brutality. Though Islamic in character, the administration cared little for 
religious considerations in matters of finance. In this respect, there was no 
distinction between Muslim and Copt; both were equally subject to a triple 
system of impositions at a time when Bgypt had lost a chief source of income 
by the steep decline in its international mediaeval trade. Thus the country 
entered one of the darkest periods of its long history with the advent of the 

Ottoman Turk. 

The people of Egypt fell into a state of lethargy, and the Copts were no 
exception to the rule, save that they were destined by nature and upbringing 
to play the prominent role in administering Mamluk estates and handling 
finance and taxation. It would be a mistake to contend that they suffered no 
pressures, but the period was, on the whole, one of miserable respite in 
comparison with the murderous persecutions of later medixval Mamluks. 
In common with all other Egyptians, the Copts were depleted in numbers by 



plagues and poverty. Cairo lost its glamour and became a secondary town, 
it is difficult to obtain a clear picture of Egypt from the exceptionally meagre 
sources of that period. In 1769, the Mamluk ascendancy ended in the ex¬ 
pulsion of the Turkish pasha by r Ali Bey al-Kablr and the declaration of 
Egyptian independence. r Ali’s meteoric empire soon comprised Syria and 
Hijaz. Finally his downfall was precipitated in 1773 by Mamluk conspiracy 
and secret Turkish intrigue. 

In the course of these upheavals, a number of Copts were advanced in the 
train of their Mamluk masters. Mu'allim, or Master Rizq, 1 became f Ali Bey’s 
chief of the mint and principal adviser in matters of finance. Other names 
following other Mamluk dignitaries were the illustrious Gauhari brothers, 2 
Ibrahim and Girgis, who accumulated fabulous wealth and commanded 
universal respect from both Muslim and Coptic contemporaries. Ibrahim, 
who was bereaved of his only son, donated most of his wealth to the Coptic 
Church. A list of 238 indentures 3 bearing his name show the extent of his 
gifts to monasteries and individual pious foundations of the community. 
He also hired scribes to copy older theological works for distribution among 
the churches in order to increase religious knowledge, perhaps the first 
serious attempt to revive the dormant Coptic theological studies in modern 
times. He procured a special firman y or decree, from Istanbul for the erection 
of the present Cathedral of St Mark at Ezbekieh, since then the new seat of 
the patriarchate. Through his influence, legal dispensations were granted for 
the restoration of numerous churches and monasteries. Both Muslim and 
Coptic writers of his time praised his generous behaviour toward all 
Egyptians without religious discrimination. He died on the eve of the 
French Expedition in 1797, and his brother and successor, Girgis al-Gau- 
hari, 4 became the chief of the diwans of the last two great Mamluks, Ibrahim 
Bey and Murad Bey. He witnessed the decline of their power and lived 
through the tempestuous years of French rule, to become Muhammad f All’s 
finance secretary. He was probably the only man of his age who commanded 
confidence from Mamluks, French and Turks alike. His leniency in taxation 
endeared him to all Egyptians though it brought down disfavour from the 
rapacious Muhammad r Ali, who, after exiling him for four years, was con¬ 
strained to reinstate him in 1809 because of his indispensable knowledge and 
ability. But soon after this he died (1810). 

Toward the end of the Ottoman period, two facts stand out from the 
confusion and misrule of the time. The invincibility of the Turk became a 
clear myth, and external forces were made aware of the extraordinary strategic 

1 Rufaila, pp. 270-3. 2 Ibid., pp. 273-87. 

,J I ewflq Iscarous, Nawabigb al-Aqbat etc. (Arabic Biographies of Famous Copts in 

the 19th Century), 2 vols. (Cairo, 1910-13), I, 281 ff. 

4 Rufaila, pp. 273-87; Iscarous, II, 280-312. 


position of Egypt, so long forgotten. This explains the forthcoming rise 
and fall of Napoleonic imperialism in the Middle East. Meanwhile, a new 
orientation in Coptic annals occurred when the long-standing barriers be¬ 
tween Copts and Muslims began to disappear in contemporary history. 

The Copts under the French 

Of short duration, the French Expedition (1798-1801) proved to be a monu¬ 
mental event in the history of Modern Egypt. For the first time since the 
Crusades, Egypt had intercourse with a European country. Now Napoleon 
Bonaparte came for the establishment of a Middle Eastern empire under the 
pretext of the defence of, rather than the attack on, Islam. In so doing, how¬ 
ever, he exposed Egypt to Western thought and Western politics. Every 
phase of Egyptian life was affected in varying degrees of intensity by that 
movement, and Egypt also became a factor in international affairs. The rise 
of Muhammad r Ali and the establishment of his dynasty in Egypt may even 
be regarded as a by-product of the expedition. In those days of turmoil and 
change, Coptic society did not remain passive. In 1798, Girgis al-Gauhari 
wrote an appeal to Napoleon, the true son of the French Revolution and the 
exponent of the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, to lift the 
disabilities of the Copts and grant them a full measure of equality with their 
Muslim brethren. Napoleon’s initial response was favourable, though he 
never sacrificed the interest of the Muslim majority for the sake of the Coptic 
minority; and we have to remember that numerous French soldiers, in¬ 
cluding Napoleon at the head of the list, posed as Muslims. 

The Copts, however, were widely used in the administration, and some of 
them rose to high office. Girgis al-Gauhari was again appointed to a key 
position in control of taxation, after the flight of the Mamluk Amirs from 
the French. In a commission of twelve instituted for local justice, six were 
Muslims and the other six were Copts. The president of the commission, 
too, was Mu'allim, or Master Malati, 1 who happened to be a Copt. Though 
the Copts were not in any way favoured by their French co-religionists, the 
fact remains that they were not subjected to repression. 

Perhaps the strangest and most romantic figure in the Coptic history of that 
period was General Ya'qub 2 (1745-1801), whose career was a prelude to an 

1 Iscarous, II, 313 ffi 

2 Older studies of Ya'qub’s career by such writers as Rufaila (pp. 289-91) have been 
superseded by the discovery of a set of official documents in London by the late Professor 
Shafiq Ghorbal. published in Arabic under the title of ‘General Ya'qub and the Chevalier 
Lascaris’ (Cairo, 1932), as well as more documents found in Paris by G. Douin, ‘L’Egypte 
independante, Projet de 1801’, in Publications of the Egyptian Geographical Society (Cairo, 


independent l^gypt neither French nor Turkish. Owing to the importance of 
the subject in both Coptic and Egyptian annals, a summary of his life and 
work may be included in these pages. 

In Mamluk days, Mu'allim Ya'qub Hanna was in charge of the province 
of Asiut under Amir Suleiman Bey. As a young man, he had to develop a 
police system of his own in his insecure province. He learnt from his 
Mamluk Iriends the equestrian art as well as the methods of warfare. Fie 
fought side by side with Suleiman Bey and later joined Murad Bey in the 
battle of Manshiya near Asiut, where the Turks were defeated on the eve 
of the coming or the French. During the bitter years of fighting between 
Turk and Mamluk, he began to realize the stark reality that the people of 
Eg\pt were a victim to the rapacity of both foreign elements, from whose 
} oke there seemed to be no means of escape. Then the advent of the French 
and the displacement of the Turk and the Mamluk before their irresistible 
modern arms, gave Y a qub an idea about a possible outlet. Since the position 
of the country could not be any worse, he decided to try his luck with the 
new invader. His acquaintance with the Egyptian roads and means of com¬ 
munication as well as the methods of army provisioning rendered his ser- 
\ ices invaluable to the French army. When Napoleon sent Desaix to com¬ 
plete ^the conquest of Upper Egypt, he appointed Ya'qub as his adjutant. 
\ a qub fought valiantly and on one occasion managed alone to keep the 
Mamluks at bay until the French main army appeared in the rear. Desaix 
gave him an inscribed sword to commemorate the victory. His cooperation 
made it possible for the French to subdue the whole of Upper Egypt as far as 
Aswan, with Asiut as the central headquarters. His ingenious organization 
of the postal service {band) closely knit the distant garrisons by swift drome¬ 
daries, which proved invaluable for the conveyance of despatches, pro¬ 
visions and wounded soldiers to hospital concentrations. 

While Ta qub was stationed in Upper Egypt, events were moving fast 
against the French in the north. They lost their fleet at Abuqlr, and Nelson 
was in command of the sea. Napoleon returned home, and Kleber succeeded 
him with an empty treasury, while the Muslims were suspicious about 
Trench policies. The French were in dire need of men like Ya'qub. While 
Kleber was fighting the Turks at the battle of Heliopolis (March 1800), 
T a qub strove to quell a revolt incited by Turkish infiltration within the 
City. It was in those untoward circumstances that he was able to persuade the 
I rench to help him in the realization of an old dream. Egypt had long been 

192 4 ). Sec also Gaston Homsy, Le General Jacob et UExpedition de Bonaparte en Eeypte 
(1 arseillcs, 1921). The Coptic Historical Commission republished the same documents 
in a separate Arabic brochure (Publication No. 3; Cairo, 1935). The views of the contem¬ 
porary annalist al-Jabarti should be revised in the light of the official documents. 


deprived of a national army of its own, and he was firmly convinced that 
there could be no rehabilitation of the nation without an army. But since 
the Turks played on religious sentiments in order to break the unity of the 
Egyptian people, Ya'qub conceived the idea of trying the experiment on his 
own co-religionists. After the battle of Heliopolis, French authorities 
approved his plan for a Coptic Legion to consist of two thousand recruits, 
mainly from Upper Egypt. These were trained by professional officers, and 
Kleber appointed Ya'qub their commander with the rank of colonel in 
May 1800, ultimately promoting him to general in March 1801. 

When the treaty of 27 June 1801 was signed by the French, relinquishing 
Cairo to the Turks, it was stipulated that those of the natives who wished to 
depart with them should be allowed to do so. Accordingly, Ya'qub decided 
to leave with his family, a group of loyal friends and a small bodyguard 
which fought later in the Napoleonic campaigns. They embarked on the 
British battleship Pallas, under the command of Captain Joseph Edmonds, 
from Alexandria on 10 August 1801. Soon afterward Ya'qub became seriously 
ill and died on 16 August. Owing to his position, his body was preserved in 
‘a case of spirits’ until it was laid to rest on French soil at Marseilles in a 
military funeral on 18 October 1801. 

The truth about Ya'qub’s controversial career and his secret mission to 
Europe has been uncovered in the memoirs of Lascaris, chevalier of the 
Order of Malta, who travelled on the Valias and interpreted for him in his 
deliberations with Captain Edmonds, prior to his illness. He wanted the 
captain to carry a message from him in the name of the Egyptian people to 
the British government to the effect that the only solution to the Egyptian 
question was Egyptian independence. The message was transmitted to the 
Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Saint-Vincent, with a covering letter 
dated 4 October 1801 from Minorca. Similar appeals dated 23 September 
1801 were later submitted by the other members of the Egyptian delegation 
to Bonaparte as First Consul and to Talleyrand, his Foreign Secretary. In 
this way the dawn of Egyptian nationalism broke forth from the shattered 
life of General Ya'qub. 

Age of Cyril IV, Father of Coptic Reform 

Marcus VIII, the contemporary Coptic patriarch of the French Expedition, 
was succeeded by Peter VII (1809-5 2), 1 surnamed al-Gauli, whose long reign 
coincided with that of Muhammad 'Ali. The viceroy’s appreciation for the 
patriarch was enhanced by his refusal to accept an invitation of the tzar of 

1 Iscarous, I, 5 8 ff. 

104 ' modern times 

Russia for the Coptic Church to regard him as its defender and liege lord. 
He extended the Church’s influence by consecrating the first bishop of the 
Sudan after its conquest in 1823, and by the despatch of a monk of St 
Antony by the name of Dawud on a diplomatic mission to Ethiopia. That 
very Dawud was destined to succeed him as patriarch under the name of 
Cyril IV. Peter’s frugality resulted in the accumulation of an immense for¬ 
tune which made his successor’s reforms possible. 

Cyril IV (1854-61) has been universally acknowledged as the father of 
Coptic reform. 1 Born of farmer stock about 1816 in an obscure village in the 
province of Girga, Dawud (as he was then named) shared in the tilling of the 
soil with his father and befriended the neighbouring Arabs from whom he 
learned the equestrian art and camel riding and was admired for his skill in 
chivalry. At twenty-two he joined the monastic order at the Convent of 
St Antony and soon distinguished himself for piety, enlightenment and 
administrative skill. On the death of the abbot, his colleagues unanimously 
elected him to that dignity. His reforming spirit was immediately shown in 
combating illiteracy and promoting theological studies amongst the monks, 
whom he also persuaded to observe the ancient rule of their profession. He 
doubled the monastery resources by his vigilance, and used part of his funds 
for the establishment of the first elementary school at Bush, where he 
offered free instruction to the children on and around the monastery estates. 

After the accomplishment of his patriarchal mission to Ethiopia and upon 
his return in July 1852, Dawud found that the patriarch had died in April; 
and the consensus of public opinion favoured his election against the will of 
a conservative hierarchy. The bishops were pious but uneducated old people, 
not easily reconciled to the idea of advancing a younger man with moderniz¬ 
ing tendencies. So the Coptic archons, or community leaders, decided to 
proceed toward his preferment in stages. The synod of 17 April 1853 was 
persuaded to nominate him metropolitan of Cairo under the name of Cyril, 
and to entrust him with the affairs of the patriarchate. In that probationary 
capacity he proved himself worthy of the patriarchal dignity in about a year. 
It was then that he started the foundation of the Coptic Orthodox College, 
next to the new cathedral and the patriarchal palace, which owe their incep¬ 
tion in the district of Ezbekieh to the frman procured by the older Gauhari 
brothers. The project was acclaimed by the community and the nation. The 
reform movement thus won its initial battle, and he was finally installed as 
patriarch under the name of Cyril IV in June 1854. His election was sanc¬ 
tioned by the Khedive "Abbas I toward the end of his reign. 

1 Rufaila, pp. 305-24; Iscarous, II, 60-197; Bishop Isodorus’ Arabic Coptic Church 
History, Vol. II, pp. 506 -12. The need is pressing for biographical study of each name 
cited here, especially Cyril IV. The present is a short organized summary of an interesting 
subject. Sec also R. Strothmann, Die Koptische Kirche in der Neu^eit, pp. 24-31; Fowler, 
Christian Egypt , pp. 131-3; Maria Cramer, Das Christlich-Koptische A gyp ten, pp. 93-4. 


Cyril’s short reign (1854-61) abounded in reforms. His first target was 
education, and he spent no less than six hundred thousand piastres, then an 
enormous sum of money, to complete his exemplary college, where instruc¬ 
tion was free. He even distributed books and stationery without charge. 
Outstanding professors were appointed to teach Coptic, Arabic, Iurkish, 
French, English and Italian, as well as the usual subjects of an academic 
curriculum. His devotion to the project was such that he spent all his spare 
time in classes and preferred to make the school his meeting place with visi¬ 
tors whose advice he sought on matters of instruction. The college gained 
so much prestige that the Khedive Ismail, in the reign of Cyril’s successor, 
Demetrius II, donated fifteen hundred acres of arable land in perpetuity to 
help the patriarch in meeting the expense of its expanding enrolment. An 
additional annuity of two hundred pounds in cash was granted but not paid 
owing to the insolvency of the Egyptian treasury at that time. 

Two other schools were also established in distant quarters of the city, 
and what was even more impressive, he opened the first girls’ college in 
Egypt and became the great pioneer in female education. He was alarmed at 
the shortage of printed literature, both Arabic and Coptic, since Egypt 
possessed only the government press at Bulaq. So he hastened to purchase a 
printing press from Europe and obtained the Khedive Said Pasha’s permis¬ 
sion to send four young Copts to learn the art of printing at Bulaq. On the 
arrival of the press at Alexandria, Cyril, who was at St Antony’s, ordered an 
official reception for it with an imposing procession of deacons in ecclesiasti¬ 
cal vestments chanting hymns all the way from Cairo station to the patriar¬ 
chate. When criticized about the performance, he retorted by saying that if 
he had been present at that great event, he would have danced before it as 
David did before the tabernacle. 

His religious reforms included reparation of old churches and the building 
of new ones. Perhaps the completion of the present Basilica of St Mark 
in Ezbekieh was his greatest feat in this field. Realizing how the Coptic 
clergy had long been a prey to ignorance, he summoned all priests within 
reach of the capital to a regular Saturday assembly at the patriarchate for 
systematic readings and theological discussions, himself participating in their 
edification. He enforced church discipline, more especially in regard to 
sacred music and vestments on old models. Father Takla, noted for his 
mastery of ancient traditional vocal music, was commanded to offer classes to 
the deacons. The liturgies, hymnals, synaxaria, eucologia, lectionaries, texts 
of church offices, and even biblical literature, hitherto of limited accessibility 
in manuscript, were printed for free distribution to churches and even Coptic 

In the reorganization of the administration of church property, he eradi¬ 
cated the informality of personal handling which caused confusion and loss 


(-f revenue. Orderly book-keeping, and standard registers for property, 
marriages, births, deaths and similar affairs were inaugurated in the new 
patriarchal archives. 

Cyril also brought foreign prestige to the Church. He was sent by SaTd 
Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, on a hazardous mission of political mediation with 
Theodor, negus of Ethiopia, when war was imminent between the two coun¬ 
tries. Starting on 4 September 1856, he returned as late as 13 February 185 8 1 
after settling the differences of both monarchs with tact and skill. Theodor 
showed his esteem by meeting the patriarch at a three days’ journey from the 

In the sphere of external church diplomacy, the visionary Cyril entertained 
dreams of pan-orthodoxy. He cultivated sympathies with the Melkite Greek 
patriarch to the point that the latter entrusted him with surveillance over his 
church affairs during his absence in Constantinople. His policy was one of 
forgiveness and forgetfulness, even of the fearful memories of Chalcedon 
and Cyrus. But the peculiar position of Egyptian politics under the khedives 
made the realization of his new venture a very dangerous one. When Cyril 
envisaged wider contacts beyond the frontiers of Egypt, notably with the 
Russian Orthodox Church and the Church of England, he incurred the 
khedive s tacit ire and suspicion, fearing foreign interference in the realm 
through such religious associations. The rumour was circulated by word of 
mouth, but never put in writing before Farouk’s abdication for self-evident 
reasons, that SaTd summarily poisoned 2 the illustrious and ambitious 
patriarch. He completed his course on 30 January 1861, immediately after an 
audience with the khedive, and the Copts have never forgotten him to this 

The age of Cyril was rich in outstanding names in the hierarchy. Foremost 
in sanctity and primitive austerity, reminiscent of the early days of the 
fathers of Coptic antiquity, was Anba Abraam, 3 bishop of Faiyum (1829— 
I 9 I 4) > who freely gave all he had to the poor and the needy of his diocese 
without distinction between Muslim and Copt. Anba Basileus 4 (1818-99) 
was consecrated archbishop of Jerusalem by Cyril IV in 1856. His per¬ 
sonality rendered him the official representative of the Copts and the unoffi¬ 
cial representative of all Egyptians in that international centre. Endowed 
with unusual administrative ability, he extended Coptic property in 
the Holy Land, built imposing hostels for pilgrims and, what is more, estab¬ 
lished the unique and fascinating diminutive chapel at the head of the Holy 

1 It is interesting to realize that Cyril used the time of his long journeying learning 
Turkish from two Aghas whom Sa'Id delegated as members of his court; Rufaila, p. 315. 

“ Fowler, pp. 132, 133; he wrote at the turn of the century and openly records the murder 
of the patriarch by order of the khedive. 

3 Strothmann, p. 118; Isodorus, II, 521. 

4 Iscarous, II, 198-279; Strothmann, pp. 116-17; Isodorus, II, 521. 


Sepulchre under the great central dome. A story is current among the Copts 
that the tzar of Russia offered him its volume in gold to buy it, but the 
wary archbishop gently said that it was not his own to sell. Though some¬ 
what unrealistic, this episode is significant. Through his offices, Sultan 
Abdul-Hamid issued the firman confirming Coptic possession of Dair 
al-Sultan, which Saladin had given the Coptic community and where the 
pious Abyssinians craved and still crave a footing within its precincts. 

The personality of Cyril’s own successor, Demetrius II (i862-70), 1 was 
dwarfed by the achievements of the preceding reign. Under the successive 
patriarchs, the graduates of Cyril’s college continued to throng the depart¬ 
ments of state, and some reached the highest posts in the administration, the 
example of Boutros Ghali Pasha, who became premier of Egypt, is well 
known. Others distinguished themselves in all fields in the service of their 
country and people. A new generation of illuminated priesthood was also 
budding, though not at the same rate as the Coptic laity. The Hegomenus 
Fllutheus Ibrahim TAwad (1837-1904) 2 is an instance of progressive learning, 
eloquence, and public service. In 1874 he became rector of a new school for 
the education of monks, the class of divines from whom the prelates and 
patriarchs were selected. He combated the novel inroads of both the Catholic 
and Protestant missionaries who arrived at this time. He compiled the Coptic 
canon law which governed family relationship. His homiletics compare 
favourably with the finest. The fact remains that the impetus given by Cyril 
IV produced the most felicitous results in building up an enlightened and 
progressive laity, whereas the clergy unfortunately lagged behind the flock. 
Thus we begin to perceive a kind of imbalance within Coptic society, 
which explains the gathering clouds of a new battle between constitution¬ 
alism and conservatism. The echo of its din still resounds in our ears to 
this day. 

Cyril V: Clerical Conservatism versus Popular Constitutionalism 

Born in 1824, Cyril V died in 1927 3 after a tumultuous reign in which he 
oscillated between clerical conservatism and the aspirations of a progressive 

1 Strothmann, pp. 31-3; Fowler, pp. 133-5. Rufaila, p. 323, records that the khedive 
summoned the patriarch and warned him against acting like his predecessor, saying that 
if he wanted something he should do it through the khedive’s offices. 'The warning is of 
course significant. Bishop Isodorus in his history, II, 508, states that he was poisoned on 
account of the project of union with the English and Russian churches. 

2 Iscarous, II, 85; Isodorus, II, 520-1. 

3 Rufaila, pp. 329 ff.; Yusuf Minqarious, History of the Coptic Nation , 1X93-1912 (in 
Arabic; Cairo, 1913), pp. 59 ffi; Strothmann, pp. 33-5; Fowler, pp. 135-43. 


community. His outlook on life had the limitations of his past. His early 
life was sorrowful. As a young man, Hanna Matar lost his parents and re¬ 
mained in the care of a modest older brother. In his twenties he took the 
monastic vow, first at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Syrians (Dair al- 
Suryan), and afterwards at the poorer Monastery of Baramous, both in the 
Nitrean Valley. There he lived in poverty and privation. His chief vocation, 
apart from a share in the religious and domestic service, was the copying of 
manuscripts for a living. After years of austerity, Demetrius II summoned 
him for service at St Mark’s Cathedral, where he was exposed to contacts 
with the community. In answer to supplications from his brethren in the 
wilderness, the patriarch released him for a return to the monastery, where 
he stayed until 1875. Demetrius died in that year, and the prelates and ar- 
chons unanimously recalled Father Hanna to assume the patriarchal dignity 
as Cyril V. Fie occupied the throne for well-nigh fifty-three years. His 
loyalty, piety and good intentions were above reproach. But he combined 
with imperturbable obstinacy, the narrowness of an honest man whose edu¬ 
cation was limited to the knowledge that he had gathered as a simple copyist. 
This limitation he shared with the hierarchy, which was generally recruited 
from the uneducated ranks of simple folk. After Cyril IV, the position was 
thus reversed and the torch of reform was carried alone by lay members of 
the community. The new age was one of political enfranchisement, parlia¬ 
mentary government and advisory committees. Cyril V came from a dif¬ 
ferent world and was unable to cope with these progressive methods. Hence 
arose decades of strife between the old order and the new. 

It would be unjust to accept the verdict of the anti-patriarchal group which 
maligned Cyril V as a giant of iniquity. The constructive side of his career 
was seen in the restoration of many churches, monasteries and nunneries. 1 
He also built new churches throughout Egypt and consecrated one at 
Khartoum in the Sudan. A Coptic technical school for boys and another of 
home economics for girls were inaugurated in his early years, but it is 
difficult to define his contribution to their promotion. He bought a spacious 
house at Mahmasha in Cairo, where he was persuaded to start a new clerical 
seminary for religious education. In 1896 he issued an encyclical 2 enjoining 
the clergy to abide by stricter rules of organized religious life. If we can 
believe his enthusiastic court biographer, he increased patriarchal revenue 
from five thousand pounds at his accession to forty-three thousand pounds 
in 1913 through frugality and wise administration. 3 It was in his reign that 
the ‘tribute’, a relic of the mediaeval Islamic system, the old ji%ya levied from 

1 It is interesting to note Minqarious’s enumeration (pp. 63-4) of thirteen monasteries 
and nunneries in or around Cairo in addition to the patriarchate and one monastery at 
Faiyum. The churches restored numbered four and the newly built were ten. 

2 Full text published by Minqarious, pp. 69-73. 3 Ibid., p. 65. 


dhimmi subjects, was completely abolished by Said Pasha, and all Egyptians 
became liable to uniform taxation. 1 Subsequent constitutions, though insist¬ 
ing on Islam as the state religion, proclaimed equality of all citizens irrespec¬ 
tive of religious beliefs or ethnic origins. 

The critical group, on the other hand, indicated that Cyril surrounded 
himself by a multitude of reactionary clerics and listened to their advice and 
evil counsel. 2 

During the interregnum between Demetrius II and Cyril V, a number of 
fervent Copts established a reform association 3 4 which surveyed the social, 
cultural and religious state of the Copts and found it lamentable in compari¬ 
son with other communities. So they approached Anba Marcus, archbishop 
of Alexandria, who acted for the patriarch, and proposed that he should apply 
to the government for the creation of a Coptic council of twenty-four 
members, to be elected by the people with powers of participation in the 
management of Church property on a sound and profitable basis. The 
archbishop acquiesced, and a decree was issued on 3 February 1874 initiating 
the first Community Religious Council (MaglisMilli) A under the chairmanship 
of the patriarch or his deputy. Cyril found the Council in office at his acces¬ 
sion, and their collaboration augured well by their joint approval of the 
foundation of the Coptic Theological Seminary. The bone of contention 
emerged later, when budgetary appropriation was discussed and the members 
wished to interfere directly in organizing the proceeds of religious property 
(Waqfs ). The Patriarch automatically refused to attend the council sessions 
or even to appoint a deputy for the next seven years, and the legislature be¬ 
came powerless. Still more alarming was his unilateral decision to close the 
clerical college and a girls’ school. This aroused public opinion, and enthu¬ 
siastic reformers responded to the hardening patriarchal stand by forming 
scores of benevolent societies in most cities to look after Coptic schools and 
social work among the poor without resorting to the ecclesiastical authorities 
or church funds. But the suspension of the council had other detrimental 
consequences which could not come within the jurisdiction of private associa¬ 
tions. Legal cases of marriage, divorce, inheritance and other personal 
affairs were either retarded or mishandled by the clergy in a way which in¬ 
cited widespread disaffection. 

Delegations to the government brought forth in 1883 the reissue of a 
decree 5 ordering the resumption of the council. The stubborn patriarch 

1 S. Chaulcur, Histoire des Coptes d’Egp/e, p. 161; Jacques Taghcr, pp. 238, 254-5. 
In Muhammad f Ali’s reign the Copts still paid the Ji^ya amounting to £3,000, but they 
received some £60,000 in salaries for service in the state. John Bowring, ‘Report on 
Egypt and Candia, addressed to Viscount Palmerston’ (London, 1840), pp. 44-5. 

2 Rufaila, pp. 329 ff. 

3 Jamdyat al-Tauflq; Rufaila, pp. 343-4. 

4 Rufaila, pp. 330-1. 

5 Ibid., p. 335. 


protested to the khedive personally, but his appeal was rejected. When the 
new council was convened the patriarch again abstained from attending its 
sessions over a technicality. A third council was elected in 1891, and it suffered 
the fate of its predecessor. Further negotiations were without avail. The new 
Tauflq Association was formed for reconciliation, as its name indicated, and 
for the pursuit of reform. Attacks between the ecclesiastical and secular 
parties became scandalous in the press and in government circles. Patriarchal 
pleas to the khedive were ignored, and the request for an audience was flatly 
refused by the palace. The khedive instructed Premier Boutros Ghali Pasha 
to ask the patriarch to refrain from addressing the court directly. Meanwhile, 
Council members, in the face of his unflinching obstinacy and disregard for 
official injunctions, petitioned for his suspension from patriarchal affairs and 
the appointment of a deputy from the hierarchy to act for him. The bishop of 
Sanabu was mentioned. On hearing this, the infuriated patriarch threatened 
the candidate with excommunication and approached foreign diplomats to 
intercede with the khedive on his behalf. Alarmed by the irregularity of this 
step, Boutros Pasha made a final attempt to bridge the dispute by holding a 
hurried meeting with the patriarch. Though he succeeded in wresting a 
written agreement from him, 1 it came to nothing. 

Finally, in September 1892, the khedive exiled him to the Baramous 
Monastery, and his aide, the archbishop of Alexandria, was ordered to retire 
to St Paul’s on the Red Sea. This measure aroused popular sympathy for 
him, more especially as no one doubted his sanctity and good intentions. 
Efforts by both his friends and foes were exerted at the palace for his return, 
which was granted in February 1893. 2 He was given a royal welcome by 
Cairenes, and was accompanied by a state representative and the city gover¬ 
nor, who officially reinstated him in the patriarchal palace. The council was 
accepted, the bishop of Sanabu forgiven, the seminary reopened, and a new 
secondary section in the Coptic college was created. A proclamation was 
made for expansion in religious education by the inauguration of branch 
seminaries at Alexandria, Bush in Beni Suef, and the Muharraq Monastery in 
Asiut. fn spite of the rebuffs of conservatism, the modern elements of con¬ 
stitutionalism won the day, and the Community Council became an accepted 
reality in Coptic public life. 

With the settlement of the constitutional crisis within the Church, the 
Copts became free to deal with other problems originating in Cyril’s long 
reign. One of these touched the Syrian Jacobite Church, which was identical 
with the Coptic Church in rites, dogmas and doctrines to the extent that both 
found it normal to exchange prelates and monks in the course of their long 
history. The situation was momentarily clouded by an untoward incident. 

1 Text published by Minqarious, pp. 304-6; Rufaila, pp. 351-3. 

2 Rufaila, p. 363. 


Cyril V, in keeping with older tradition, welcomed a Syrian by the name of 
Na'um to the fold of Coptic monasticism and later in 1897 raised him to the 
bishopric as Isodorus. 1 He then appointed him abbot of the Baramous 
Monastery. Isodorus was an author and church historian of no small merit, 
but he apparently deviated from tradition on certain topics and was accused 
of heresy. As administrator, he antagonized his direct superior, the arch¬ 
bishop of Alexandria. Inside the monastery, his policy led to the ruin of 
the Baramous brotherhood. Some monks discarded Coptic orthodoxy al¬ 
together, and the rest deserted the convent. The Holy Synod, under Cyril’s 
presidency, tried him, found him guilty, and degraded him. He resorted to 
the patriarch of Antioch, who disregarded the sentence and again made him 
bishop as Cyril Isodorus. He further nominated him as his representative 
with powers to recover some churches and convents in Egypt for Syrian 
authority. These decisions were communicated in writing to Cyril V and 
the Egyptian government. The Coptic patriarch in turn refuted those claims 
by similar letters to Antioch and the authorities. Happily the incident soon 
passed and the authorities gave it no particular attention. 

The other problem assumed greater dimensions, and, though it finally 
subsided, evoked national uproar for a time. This was the movement of the 
Coptic Congress 2 held in 1911 at Asiut for requesting fuller Coptic civic 
enfranchisement and complete equality of all Egyptians in opportunities 
and duties, irrespective of religious profession. A counter-movement was 
the establishment of a Muslim Congress simultaneously held in Alexandria 
to confound Coptic claims. The khedive was displeased with both move¬ 
ments, and the patriarch tried to persuade the Coptic Congress leaders to 
transfer their meetings to Cairo in compliance with the government’s wishes. 
After a period, however, the movement subsided; and eight years later the 
leading members of the Coptic Congress were among the foremost nation¬ 
alist delegates of the Wafd party in the great struggle for independence of 
their common fatherland. At a later date, the Muslim Brothers tried to revive 
sectarian nationalism, which proved to be an unnatural imposition contrary 
to progress, and the Egyptian revolution had no difficulty in suppressing 
the whole Brotherhood with its reactionary and disruptive policies. Even the 
incidents of the sack of a Coptic church at Zagazig in March 1947 and the 
burning of the Suez church by incendiaries in January 1952 were discounted 
by the Copts as criminal acts punishable by the public law and without 

1 Full report with documents to be found in Minqarious, pp. 88—111; Rufaila, pp. 
369-71. Bishop Isodorus’ own point of view in the matter is summarily presented in his 
own Coptic Church History , Vol. II, p. 513. But he provides the details of what he calls his 
tragedy later in the supplement, II, 563-99. However, he makes a generally favourable 
account of Cyril V’s reign and the Coptic personalities of the time; cf. II, 513-25. 

2 Kyriacos Mikhail. Copts and Moslems under British Control (London, 1911), pp. 19 fT.; 
Minqarious, pp. 422 ff. 


general significance or national consequence. Perhaps the most remarkable 
outcome of the succession of events from the days of Cyril V is that national 
unity has come to stay, that religion belongs to God and the homeland to 

Coming of the Missionary 

The advent of the European missionary, both Catholic and Protestant, and 
the Coptic counter-movement took concrete shape in the reign of Cyril V. 
Catholic attempts at conciliation, however, go further back into history. 
The first endeavour at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-45 was 
followed by another in 1597, without avail. Then in 1630 a Capuchin friar 
of Paris, Joseph Leclerc du Tremblay, founded a modest religious centre in 
Cairo which another Father Agathangelo of Vendome inherited, but evi¬ 
dently he failed to impress the Copts. In the end, he migrated to Abyssinia, 
where he was killed. In 1675, the Franciscans came to Upper Egypt and the 
Jesuits settled in Cairo. Both missions had no response whatever until, in 
1741, Anba Athanasius, bishop of Jerusalem, became a Catholic with two 
or three ineffectual successors. It was at that time that Rufa’Il al-Tukhi, a 
learned Coptic convert to Catholicism, had to flee to Rome, where he spent 
the years 1736-49 editing the Copto-Arabic Eucologion and other prayer 
books of the Coptic Church. The French expedition of 1798-1801 offered the 
Latin missionary more freedom of movement in the country, and a few Copts 
seem to have had no objection to union with Rome, until the bishop of 
Girga, Anba Yusab al-Abahh, known for his sanctity and eloquence, rose to 
defend Coptic doctrine and silence Roman propaganda. 

In fact, the introduction of Catholicism into Egypt came more through 
politics and expediency than through candid conviction. The story runs that 
the French consul-general approached Muhammad r Ali requesting that he 
might issue a summary invitation, or rather order, to the Coptic patriarch to 
offer ecclesiastical allegiance to Rome. The khedive, in acquiescence, told his 
Coptic secretary, MUallim Ghali, to act accordingly on his behalf; but know¬ 
ing Coptic obstinacy in matters of creed, the resourceful Ghali suggested 
proselytizing himself with his family and dependents as a first step, and 
having an example, the rest would follow him. The result was disappointing, 
though Catholicism came to stay. 

Rome put into force its pretensions of superiority over the Coptic Church 
in 1895 by the elevation of a Uniate Catholic priest named Cyril Macarius 
as Coptic papal nuncio to the whole diocese of Egypt, together with two 
suffragan bishops for Lower and Upper Egypt. Instead of quietly acting 


within his jurisdiction over the strict Catholic minority, Cyril Macarius 1 
began to issue encyclicals addressed to members of the Coptic congregation 
and their priests, inviting them to offer allegiance to the pope at Rome. The 
Coptic liturgy was adopted verbatim and the Coptic hymnal chanted in a 
similar fashion in all Catholic Coptic churches in Coptic and Arabic with the 
necessary interpolations concerning the pope. People did not distinguish dif¬ 
ferences and the whole scheme looked like a conspiracy, which Cyril V 
firmly met with a long and forceful encyclical read by Coptic bishops and 
priests in all Coptic churches. Coptic preachers and theologians thundered 
from every pulpit in defence of the faith of their fathers, and the I legomenos 
Filutheus f Awad played a decisive role in the ensuing controversy. 

Protestant missionary activity in Egypt was inaugurated by the United 
Presbyterians of America in 1854, and the Church Missionary Society of 
England supplemented that work in 1882. Launched primarily to work 
amongst non-Christians, they soon took the shorter road of proselytizing 
the Copts through the medium of excellent educational offerings and fine 
social service, and the Copts reacted with some vigour. 2 

The result of both endeavours was the establishment of two small but 
active minorities of Catholic and Protestant congregations. The impact of 
their dynamism on the Coptic Church saw its modern awakening from 
centuries of lethargy. The challenge shook the ancient church to its very 
foundations and inspired its sons to rekindle the dimmed flame of a glorious 

1 Minqarious, pp. 74-88. For the Catholic outlook on the subject, see M. Khuzam. 
The Catholic Coptic Mission (Cairo, 1929). Works by Catholic scholars such as Adrian 
Fortescuc, Donald Attwater and R. Janin contain useful background material. Sec also 
S. Gaselee, The Uniates and their Kites (London, 1925); V. Buri, ‘L’unionc della Chiesa 
Copta con Roma sotto Clemente VIII’, in Orientalia Christiana (Rome, 1931), XXIII, 2, 
no. 72; he probleme de Vunion des eglises d'Orient et d'Occident, Essai historique et pastoral , par 
les Missionnaires de St Paul (Harissa, Liban, 1939); Centro Francescano di Studi Orientali 
Cristiani, II primato e Tutiione delle chiese nel Medio Oriente , in Studia Orientalia Cristiana, 
Collectanea No. 5 0 (Cairo, i960): Chiesa Copta (pp. 1-181), La Chiesa Siriana (pp. 183— 
214), Chiesa Armena (pp. 215-353), Chiesa Caldca (pp. 355-438, followed by some docu¬ 
ments; Fowler, pp. 231-4, 270-1. 

2 For background material on the Protestant missionary work in Egypt, the following 
is a useful selection: R. Anderson, History of the American Board of Commissions for Foreign 
Missions to the Oriental Churches (Boston, 1872); J. Batal, Assignment, Near East (New 
York, 1950); A. J. Dain, Mission Fields Today: A Brief World Survey (London, 1956); 
A. Dempsey, Mission on the Nile (London, 1955); M. Fowler, Christian Egypt (London, 
1901); Handbook of Foreign Missions of the United Presbyterian Church of North America 
(Philadelphia) and the Board of the Women’s General Missionary Society (Pittsburgh); 
A. H. Hourani, Minorities in the Arab World (Oxford, 1947); C. R. Watson, Egypt and the 
Christian Crusade (Philadelphia, 1907). For further references, see K. E. Moyer, A Selected 
and Annotated Bibliography of North Africa and the Near and Aliddle East (New York, 1957); 
Fowler, pp. 235-69 on Anglican mission, 274-9 on American Presbyterian mission, 
280-2 on other Protestant missions. 


An Innovation 

After the decease of Cyril V in August 1927, the Coptic hierarchy made a 
new departure from the accepted tradition of patriarchal elections. Hitherto 
the patriarch-elect had been chosen from the ranks of simple monks by the 
archons or notables of the community in collaboration with the leading 
church dignitaries and in accordance with the time-honoured terms of the 
Didascallia and the interpretation of its contents by mediaeval writers. During 
the early decades of the twentieth century, the equilibrium between the 
clergy and the laity in matters of progress and education was shaken. While 
members of the Coptic community were advancing by leaps and bounds 
socially and professionally, the clerical positions were filled essentially by 
men whose education was defective. Secular apathy grew in regard to the 
clergy with serious consequences. Thus we find that bishops and archbishops 
began to covet the patriarchal throne for themselves, while the community 
remained passive and disinterested in ecclesiastical developments. It was in 
this atmosphere that the last three patriarchs were elected. The first was the 
veteran archbishop of Alexandria and Behaira Province, Joannes XIX 
(1927-42). The second was the archbishop of Asiut who succeeded as 
Macarius III (1944-5). The third was the archbishop of Girga, Yusab II 
(1946-56), then considered by some as a better candidate since he had partial 
theological training in Greece. But the apparent sterility and absence of con¬ 
structive policies in Church affairs during the first two reigns only gave way 
to simony and corruption in the third. The reaction to that lamentable state 
was a violent reawakening of the Copts. 

The quarrel between the patriarch and the people over the influence of his 
servant in the administration of Church finances and episcopal nominations 
became one of the worst public scandals in Coptic history. Finally came the 
dismissal of his temporizing Community Council and the appointment by 
decree of an independent commission of twenty-four Coptic leaders 1 to handle 
the deteriorating position. The unprecedented abduction of the patriarch 
by the extremists of a ‘Society of the Coptic Nation’ 2 was one demonstration 

1 Having been one of the nominees to that Council, I had the opportunity to witness 
the workings of the patriarchal machinery from within. The present account is given from 
memory rather than memoirs. I participated in numerous sub-committees of enquiry into 
some facets of emerging situations. Members of the clergy testified and the proces-verbaux 
of the meetings were compiled, and, if saved in the patriarchal archives, they should 
provide future scholars with revealing details. Our liaison with the government was the 
Coptic member of the Cabinet, the late Guindy (Bey) f Abd al-Malik, a former supreme 
court judge and a man of great integrity. His personality was above reproach and his 
courage was tremendous. 

2 ‘Jama'at al-Umma al-Qibtiya.’ A modern author, Edward Wakin in his A 'Lonely 
Minority , the Story of Egypt’s Copts , the Challenge of Survival for Four Million Christians 


of the rising feelings among the Copts and the gravity of public opinion. 
The new commission was universally welcomed, but its members soon came 
to clash with the simoniacal patriarch and his corrupt retinue. Meanwhile, 
under the influence of evil advisers, he antagonized his own bishops through 
excessive extortions and threats of degradation. Hence the hierarchy swung 
to the side of the Council and formed a united front. After several enquiries 
into the patriarch’s behaviour, a joint decision was reached by the Holy 
Synod and the Community Council to relieve Yusub of Church administra¬ 
tion. A request to that effect was granted by the state in a decree dated Sep¬ 
tember 1955, and the unhappy patriarch was escorted by the authorities into 
exile at the Monastery of Our Lady, known as Dair al-Muharraq, in Asiut. 
His spiritual prerogative was entrusted to an ecclesiastical commission of 
three archbishops of recognized piety. He died on 14 November 1956, and a 
saintly recluse named Mena was elected to succeed him and was consecrated 
under the name of Cyril, or Kirollos VI, on 10 May of the same year. Con¬ 
sequently, all Copts rejoiced at the breaking of dawn again. 

Modern Reform 

Even in its darker moments, the Coptic Church has always found reforming 
and progressive personalities in its membership. The educational limitations 
of its priesthood began to give way to university graduates who came to 
enroll in the hierarchy, both monastic and secular, during the reign of Yusab 
II. This movement has been rapidly growing since the accession of Cyril or 
Kirollos VI, who has surrounded himself with advisers of a much higher 
calibre than his predecessors, and the Coptic Holy Synod has incorporated a 
major section of its membership from the highly qualified younger ranks of 
the community - men who combine commendable education and learning 
with piety, integrity, and unswerving dedication to the cause of service. 

With the extension of religious liberties under the Constitution and the 
National Charter, the Copts have been able to build numerous churches to 
cope with their increasing numbers throughout the country and in the big 
cities. The ancient models of Coptic architecture have been revived by men 

(New York, 1963), pp. 93 ffi, has lightly touched the periphery of the subject as a whole. 
Of course it is extremely difficult to give details, since the sources are unpublished and the 
process is still current history. The writer of these pages, who happened to be a modest 
factor in the events of the period, has prepared a fuller account under a Rockefeller grant 
to the Egyptian Historical Association for research on the subject of ‘Modernization in 
the Arab World’. Since the lamentable death of the chief editor, Shafiq Ghorbal, it has 
been difficult to know the fate of that material. 

H E C—E 


of vision and unusual skill. The Zamalek Church of Our Lady 1 is the last 
word in this renewal of the old and the adaptation of the modern. The 
rebuilding of the Cathedral of St Mark in Alexandria has given the old 
capital a worthy house of worship. More than a score of churches have 
emerged throughout Cairo, notably in the thickly populated district of 
Shubra. The historic churches have received national attention, and con¬ 
tributions from the public funds have helped in their restoration and pre¬ 
servation, through the good offices of the Commission for the Conservation 
of Arab Monuments in the Department of Antiquities. 

The multiplication of Coptic benevolent societies in every corner of the 
country, now under close control by the Ministry of Social Affairs, has given 
to the country a variety of foundations, of which the Coptic college for girls 
and the Coptic hospital in Cairo are the most important. The Coptic hospital 
has proved to be one of the finest in Egypt, and its services are extended to 
all patients, regardless of faith or creed. It was inaugurated by a benevolent 
Coptic association in the reign of Cyril V, and it has been enlarged since 
then with state aid. Because of its importance to the public, it has lately been 
nationalized by the state, together with other similar hospitals, both Coptic 
and Muslim alike. 

With the nationalization of educational institutions in recent years, the 
innumerable Coptic private schools have been ceded to the Ministry of 
Education, but Coptic theological training has remained the chief concern of 
the Community Council. The Coptic clerical college which Cyril V was per¬ 
suaded to start as a small and rather insignificant institution, has been moved 
from its antiquated quarters at Mahmasha to the imposing Anba Ruweis 
building, and it has been supplemented by a fine annexe on its extensive 
grounds. Now it comprises three divisions: an intermediate, with a five- 
year curriculum for young folk holding a primary school certificate only; 
an advanced section, with a three-year programme for graduates of secondary 
education; and evening classes open to students of all description who are 
interested in divinity without intention to join the priesthood. Its present 
principal 2 is a doctor of philosophy in Coptic studies from Manchester and a 
monk of Dair-el-Muharraq. A special branch of the college, St Didymus 
Institute for the Blind, sponsors the instruction of chanters, who constitute 
an important element in the celebration of Coptic liturgies. There is a tacit 
recognition from the bishops that no priest may be ordained before gradua- 

1 Its architcct-artist is Ramses Wissa Wasef, a graduate of the Paris Polytechnic and the 
son of a former president of the Egyptian parliament. His imagination and skill extended 
from architecture to stained glass, painting and coloured tile. His school of folk-weaving 
will be mentioned later. 

2 Dr Wahib r Atallah Girgis, now Father Bakhurn al-Muharraqi, is a former pupil of 
the eminent Coptologist the late Professor Walter Till. He has written several brochures 
in Arabic and in English, of which some have been cited already. 


tion from that college. Of late years, its student enrolment has included 
numerous graduates from the faculties of letters, law, science, agriculture 
and engineering of the Egyptian universities. At long last, the infiltration of 
real scholars into the hierarchy may be regarded as an auspicious beginning 
of a Coptic religious renaissance. Young men of the same calibre have also 
joined monastic foundations with sure prospects of candidacy to the episco¬ 
pate. Already a number of them have succeeded the deceased bishops and 
archbishops of the old school. 

Partly inspired by the progress of religious education, and in collaboration 
with a number of ordained university graduates, the Coptic youth have con¬ 
stituted a Sunday School organization to instruct young Copts in matters of 
religion and the Church. Centuries of pressure and seclusion had produced a 
priestly class which, while retaining traditions of piety and spirituality, fell 
under the yoke of ignorance. Methods of worship among the Copts became 
mere forms with little life or even intelligibility. The first task of the Sunday 
School leaders has been the eradication of this danger through voluntary 
instruction. From modest subscriptions, too, they have been able to establish 
a great many elementary schools in remote regions, and to start homes in the 
metropolitan areas for students with religious inclinations. 

In the religio-cultural field, three noteworthy features have aroused con¬ 
siderable appreciation in scholarly circles. These are the Coptic Museum, the 
Society of Coptic Archeology, and the Institute of Coptic Studies. 

The Coptic Museum was founded by the late Morkos Smaika 1 (Pasha) in 
191 o in a single hall near the Mu f allaqa Church, within the precincts of the Fort 
of Babylon in Old Cairo, with the approval of Cyril V. Armed with a patriar¬ 
chal charter, Morkos (Pasha) combed all the historic monasteries and churches 
to collect objects of archeological interest for the Museum. He also used his 
personal influence to acquire important articles from old Coptic homes. The 
state became interested in it, and finally it was incorporated in the Depart¬ 
ment of Antiquities and given a fine home built in Coptic style on the same 
spot. Monuments of Coptic provenance in the Egyptian Museum were 
transferred to it, including the magnificent collections from Bawlt and St 
Jeremias. Whole painted roofs from older foundations were transported to it, 
and stained glass windows helped to embellish the atmosphere of the build¬ 
ing. The museum soon overflowed with precious contents. Halls were de¬ 
voted to stonework, stelae and tombstones, woodwork, furniture, metal¬ 
work, textiles and embroideries, pottery, porcelain and glass, engraved 
ivory, icons, frescoes and wall paintings and domestic articles of all kinds. 

1 Later he inaugurated a museum publication scries with profusely illustrated guides in 
English, French and Arabic. The Arabic guide appeared in 2 vols. (Cairo, 1930-2). The 
French and English are smaller brochures which appeared also in Cairo in 1937 and 1938 


The museum has grown to be a precious link between the Egyptian Museum 
and the Museum of Islamic Art. Its library, too, has been developed into a 
true repository of Coptic source material, both published and in manu¬ 
script. It contains one of the finest collections of Coptic papyri, ostraca, 
manuscripts and all manner of inscribed material. The Gnostic papyri of 
Chenoboskion found at Nag r Hamadi are among its most prized acquisitions 
of recent years. Numerous Christian Arabic manuscripts have been accumu¬ 
lated in it from varied sources. 1 

The Society of Coptic Archaeology was started by Mr Mirrit Ghali, a 
grandson of Boutros Ghali Pasha, in 1934 under the original name of the 
Society of the Friends of Coptic Art. It assumed its present title in 1938. 
Its Bulletin 2 has attracted contributors of profound Coptic scholarship from 
all parts of the world, and its publications as a whole have multiplied. 3 In 
recent years, the Society undertook a Coptic excavation on the site of St 
Phcebamon’s Monastery in the Thebaid near Luxor. 4 

In a sense the Institute of Coptic Studies 5 may be regarded as a natural 
corollary to the development of the foregoing foundations. The need had 
long been felt for an educational institution in Egypt where instruction, 
training and research might be conducted in the held of Coptic studies. 
With limited funds and unlimited dedication, a small group of specialized 
scholars was able to make the new foundation a reality in the spacious Anba 
Ruweis Building, the use of which was granted by the Coptic Community 
Council. The Institute was conceived for the study of every facet of Egyptian 
civilization in what is known as the Coptic period, the millennium of transi¬ 
tion between the dynastic and Islamic eras. The plan comprised some twelve 
departments, not all functioning then or as yet, but representing Coptic 

1 Marcus H. Smaika (sic), Catalogue of the Coptic and Arabic Manuscripts in the Coptic 
Museum , the Patriarchate , the Principal Churches of Cairo and Alexandria and the Monasteries 
of E&pt, 2 vols. (Cairo, 1939-42). 

2 Fifteen volumes of the Bulletin had already appeared from 1935 to 1959, of which the 
first three or four are already out of print. 

3 The Society publications consist of four categories: (1) Art and Archaeology, (2) 
Excavations, (3) Texts and Documents, and (4) Miscellaneous. A total of 22 volumes are 
in print. 

4 The results of this excavation are planned in three volumes under the title, Ee M011- 
astere de Phccbamon dans le Theba'ide: (1) Archaeology by Ch. Bachatly, (2) Texts by R. 
Rcmondon, W. C. Till and Yassa r Abd al-Masih, and (3) Analysis of Vegetals and Mater¬ 
ials by E. A. M. Greiss, A. K. El-Duweini and Z. Iskander. Tome II only published 
(Cairo, 1965). The death of some of the above-mentioned writers has delayed publication 
of further volumes of this important work. 

5 A parallel Catholic ‘Institut Coptc’ was founded in 1952 by a Franciscan, Pere Syl- 
vestre Chauleur. It has published a series of brochures on Coptic subjects called ‘Lcs 
Cahiers Coptcs’, about ten in number. Another Catholic foundation was started by another 
Franciscan, Father Martiniano Roncaglia, under the name ‘Centro di studi orientali 
della Custodia Franccscana di Terra Santa’. It publishes a series called ‘Coptica’. Both arc 
in Cairo. M. Cramer, Das Christlich-Koptische Agypten , Einst und PIeute } p. 95. 


language and linguistics, history, social studies, archaeology, art, canon law, 
church music, theology, Ethiopian and African studies, and Semitics and 
Christian Arabic letters. It was made clear from the beginning that the project, 
though sponsored by the Church and its Community Council, was not a 
sectarian or a religious affair but a school geared to the study of a phase of 
Egyptian civilization which happened to be Coptic and Christian. It was 
open to scholars of all faiths and all sects without the slightest discrimination. 
There was reassuring response to the idea within Egypt and outside its 
frontiers. The growth of its library resources has been spectacular, and the 
enrolment has been on the ascendant. 

A mutual alliance of the three afore-mentioned organizations will un¬ 
doubtedly yield results of importance to the Egyptian humanities and also 
elevate clerical standards. 

Internationalism and (Ecumenicity 

Like a great and solitary Egyptian temple sorrowfully standing on the edge 
ot the desert and weathering sandstorms over the years until it became sub¬ 
merged by the accretions of time, the ancient Coptic Church led its lonesome 
life unnoticed on the fringe of Christian civilization and was buried in the 
sands of time and oblivion. Like the same massive temple, too, it has proved 
itself to be indestructible though battered by the winds of change. As an 
organism, its potential vitality, though enfeebled by sustained fighting, has 
survived in a latent form under the weight of accumulated rubble. In the last 
few decades, with increasing security and liberty from within and support 
and sympathy from without, its sons have started removing the sands of 
time from around its edifice, which has shown modest signs of shining again. 
The task is a joint effort in which all the aforementioned institutions must 
join hands with a hierarchy that is gradually shaking off the dust of ignorance 
and formalism, and those international organizations of religion which have 
nurtured a growing interest in its historic heritage. 

The Coptic Church, which had chosen the solitude of its own primitive¬ 
ness, its peculiar spiritualism, and the rough road of its so-called Mono- 
physitism since the black days of Chalcedon in 451, is now steadily recap¬ 
turing its faith in old friends and foes overseas and in distant climes. The 
aloofness and traditional suspicion of the patriarchs towards other Christians 
of different sects is gradually being replaced by a sense of mutual regard and 
a measure of cooperation with other churches and other nations in the realm 
of cecumenicity. With the Eastern and African brethren, the Coptic Church 
has of course been conducting many visitations and contacts beyond its 


older frontiers, thus increasing the awareness of that historic kinship in many 
areas. In Asia, apart from amicable contacts with the Syrians as well as the 
Armenians and Indians, the project of consecrating a Coptic bishop of Ku¬ 
wait in 1963 was an event not to be underestimated. Activities in Africa have 
been more intense, and the rapprochement of the nations of that continent must 
necessarily reflect itself in the religious exchanges with Egypt, both Christian 
and Muslim. Ethiopian relations with the Copts are indeed paramount in the 
general picture. It has been thought by some that the decision to relieve the 
Ethiopian Church from an Egyptian archbishop, a tradition dating from the 
days of Erumentius in 340 a.d., meant that schism had set in. This is a 
serious mistake. The consecration of the first Ethiopian patriarch-catholicus 
in the person of the Ethiopian Anba Basilius on 28 June 1959, has been a wise 
step in keeping with the growing sense of nationalism. Hitherto the tie 
between the two Churches had been the person of the ethnically foreign 
Anba Salama. Now the bond is not personal but doctrinal, since the docu¬ 
ment of consecration has rendered the relation much deeper, clearer and 
healthier. The ‘pope of Alexandria and the patriarch of the see of St Mark’ 
has become the accepted and direct head of all sister churches under his 
obedience. This recognition was demonstrated in concrete form during the 
recent visit of Pope Cyril, or Kirollos VI, to Ethiopia. The total number of 
bishops now in Ethiopia is twenty-four. 

In Africa, moreover, the Coptic Church has two archbishops in the Sudan, 
one for Khartoum and another for Omdurman. South Africa has had a 
Coptic bishop. Ghana’s former President Nkrumah, who is wedded to a 
Coptic woman, opened the door to Coptic ecclesiastical service in his own 
country. However, the staggering news of the projected affiliation of some 
five million African Christians from Uganda and the neighbouring countries 
with the Coptic Church awaits further confirmation, though it must seem 
natural that those nations so recently liberated from the colonialist yoke 
should look to Egypt for religious leadership and spiritual guidance from the 
only indigenous African church. 

Acrimonious feelings toward the Western churches in Europe and America 
have been fast disappearing with the growing recognition of the Coptic 
Church as a living reality. The first demonstration of a spontaneous approach 
toward the Christian West took place when the Copts decided to send a 
delegation of three members 1 to represent the Coptic Church officially in the 
World Council of Churches held at Evanston, Illinois, in the summer of 
1954. Those Copts protested vehemently against the gracious welcome 
accorded them as newcomers to oecumenicity. They had been here, they said, 

1 These were Father Makary Bl-Souriany (now Bishop Samuel), a monk of Dair 
al-Suryan, and Father Salih Sourial (a former attorney and now secular priest at Guiza), 
and the writer of these pages. 


up to 451, when they decided to retire from the earliest phase of that world 
movement after the iniquities and humiliation of Chalcedon. With the re¬ 
birth of Christian fellowship, understanding and mutual forgiveness, the 
Copts have relinquished their established policy of seclusion in order to play 
again their part in the commonwealth of the churches after a break of fifteen 
centuries. Since Evanston, they have undoubtedly made themselves felt in 
the general deliberations of the Council and in its Central Committee. 
Pope Cyril, or Kirollos VI, found it a worthy proposition to consecrate a 
special bishop of oecumenical and social service. The Copts have not missed 
one meeting since 1954. They also despatched their own observers to the 
Second Vatican (Ecumenical Council. 1 

At long last, the retiring Coptic Church has emerged once more into 
cecumenicity. But this is not the end. The spring of 1954 witnessed a further 
step when the Coptic Church sent three representatives, a monk and two 
laymen, 2 to the Muslim-Christian Convention at Bhamdoun, Lebanon. 
About eighty spiritual leaders, half Muslim and half Christian, drawn from 
many churches and about thirty countries, met in solemn convocation to 
‘pledge that under God we will work unceasingly, with mutual confidence 
and regard for the rights of others, to promote understanding and brotherli¬ 
ness between the adherents of Islam and Christianity’. 3 The Copts, who had 
co-existed with the Muslims in Egypt for thirteen centuries, were an impor¬ 
tant factor in that international and interreligious movement, with the funda¬ 
mentals of which they had not been unfamiliar. Nothing could be more 
acceptable to the mind of the Copt than the aforementioned pledge, again 
affirmed by the Alexandria Declaration of 14 February 1955, ‘to do all 
within our power to further the spirit of friendship between the people of 
our respective faiths, to eradicate prejudice and misunderstanding, and to 
create brotherhood and mutual understanding in every possible way.’ 4 This 
is perhaps the consummation of Coptic aspirations on the road of inter¬ 

1 Father Bakhum al-Muharraqi (Dr Wahib 'Atalla Girgis attended as observer at the 

2 Father Makary (Bishop Samuel), the late Alexandre Asabgi (former judge of the 
Mixed Courts) and the writer of these lines. 

3 Handbook for Fellowships of Muslims and Christians , ‘The Bhamdoun Covenant’, pp. 22-3. 

4 Ibid., The Alexandria Declaration’, pp. 23-9. 


The Hierarchy 

From its very foundation, the backbone of the Coptic Church was its 
hierarchy. 1 Throughout their long history the Copts regarded their prelates 
with the highest deference. To them they looked for spiritual leadership and 
personal guidance, especially in the days of great trial, which were not in¬ 
frequent in Coptic annals. Neither massacre, nor persecution, nor dismissal 
from office, nor confiscation of property could exterminate the Copts as a 
community, and the hierarchy stood in the midst of all movements to fortify 
the faithful through times of storm. Faith and fortitude were their means of 
survival, and their rallying point was the patriarch, whom they feared and 
revered, not on account of the legal powers accorded to his office, but because 
of his piety and godliness. If not the earliest, the Coptic Church was at least 
one of the earliest on record to boast a truly established Church with a 
complete hierarchical framework. Even in the time of St Mark, the first patri¬ 
arch of Alexandria, the Church seems already to have had a bishop, presbyters 
and deacons. 

Until the present reign of Cyril or Kirollos VI, the patriarch’s full title, 
indicating his wide ecclesiastical jurisdiction, was as follows: ‘Most holy Pope 
and Patriarch of the great city of Alexandria and of the places subject to 
Egypt, of Jerusalem the holy city, of Abyssinia, Nubia, the Pentapolis, and 
of all the places where St Mark preached.’ 2 With variation of wording rather 
than meaning, that title has been resolved under the terms of the decree of 
i o May 1959 for the present patriarch, Cyril VI, as simply ‘Pope of Alexandria 

1 A good source is to be found in Safiy ibn al-'Assal’s Arabic compilation of the Coptic 
Laws, the ‘Nomcanon’ written in 1238, published several times. The edition used here 
is that of Murqus Girgis (Cairo, 1927). For literature on the ‘Nomcanon’, see Graf, 
II, 401-3. A. Fortescue, Lesser Eastern Churches , pp. 252-9, gives an old but still useful 
account with the usual reservations to be taken with a Catholic writer of great prejudice. 
M. Cramer, Das Christ/ich-Koptische Agypten, pp. 95-6, gives some curt notes of limited 

2 Fortescue, p. 255. In note 3 he fails to appreciate the use of the word ‘Pope’ in the 
Coptic Church; see above. 


and Patriarch of the See of St Mark’. 1 Though more curtailed than any pre¬ 
ceding descriptions, this title is at the same time more general and comprehen¬ 
sive enough to cope with the new situation in Ethiopia, where there is a new 
patriarch-catholicus obedient to the see of Alexandria. The said pope is one 
of four principal Apostolic patriarchs, the other three being those of Rome, 
Antioch and Ephesus; and the last was translated to the royal city of Con¬ 
stantinople. Three other subsidiary patriarchs are recognized in Jerusalem, 
owing to its sanctified position, in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, on account of its dis¬ 
tance from the mother see of Antioch, and in Ethiopia. The four principals 
alone have jurisdiction to ordain archbishops and bishops, to hold great, or 
general, synods for doctrinal considerations, and to consecrate the holy 
chrism. The Copts do not entertain the idea of infallibility in regard to their 
pope and patriarch, but they recognize his supreme authority over the whole 
church, and no power can dethrone him, once he is duly elected and conse¬ 
crated. The patriarch is expected to convene the general synod once a year, 
and the archbishops should summon their own bishops twice a year for the 
local synod, which is authorized to make minor decisions on matters of local 
interest. 2 The epithet ‘judge of the world’ has been used in speaking of the 
Coptic patriarch. 3 

The manner of his election is of interest. In theory, the whole nation 
participates. In practice, three candidates are chosen by the joint deliberations 
of the members of the Holy Synod, the Community Council, and the Coptic 
archons or leading personalities. Each candidate must be a monk of lifelong 
celibacy, the son of first-wedded parentage, and at least fifty years of age. He 
should be known for his sanctity, learning and great wisdom, without bodily 
defect or chronic disease that might interfere in the discharge of his public 
and religious duties. Before the final selection is made by lot, continuous 
services are held for three days in succession and a complete vigil is observed 
on the eve of the third. Names of the three candidates on little scrolls are 
enclosed in a sealed envelope with a fourth scroll on which is written, ‘Jesus 
Christ the Good Shepherd’. This is deposited on the altar and opened before 
the congregation after the final Holy Communion by the celebrant, who is 
usually the oldest interim archbishop acting for the patriarch. Then an infant 
of about eight picks out the winning name, unless the fourth scroll emerges 
to indicate that none of the three is acceptable to the divine will and thus the 
whole operation must be repeated until the issue is resolved. The idea behind 
this method is to remove from the human electorate all personal responsibility 

1 Most of the recent developments here outlined have been supplied by Bishop Samuel 
during his episcopal visitation to the Copts in America in September 1963. 

2 1 bn aRAssal’s Laws, pp. 21-8. 

3 Fortescue, loc. cit., points out that that epithet is assumed by both Greek and Coptic 
patriarchs of Alexandria in succession to St Cyril the Great, who presided over the 
(Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 439. 


for the patriarch-elect and to render him patriarch by the grace of God > 
answerable to Him alone. Afterward, he is ordained in stages by all the arch¬ 
bishops and bishops, who lay hands on him first as deacon and priest, then as 
archpriest (Hegomenos or Ojimmus) and abbot, then bishop while he kneels 
before them. In the end, he is enthroned and crowned as patriarch, and in 
turn they kneel before him and offer him allegiance while the congregation 
acclaims him and he imparts his blessing to all. 

In history, it may be noted that this dignity had never been coveted by 
pretenders. The burdens and hazards, both spiritual and physical, associated 
with that great office made those selected for it very reluctant to accept it. 
Candidates are known to have been occasionally dragged in chains from 
monastic seclusion to the seat of authority. But once elected, they met the 
demands of office with great dedication and diligence. They continued to 
dress in black with the distinctive episcopal black turban, though some were 
reported to have worn underneath the regular outer clothing of black cloak 
and tunic a rough woollen shirt next to the skin. They led a severely abstem¬ 
ious life, and some slept on beds only within sight of a witnessing servant, 
but lay down on rough matting on the floor when left to themselves. Their 
income consisted of free offerings in addition to revenues from property 
given by the faithful for religious purposes. 

Strictly speaking, the total number of archbishops and bishops consecrated 
by patriarchs and under their jurisdiction, direct or indirect, is fifty-seven. 
These may be classified under five categories. The first category comprises 
nineteen archbishops of sees within Egypt. 1 The second, seven abbots of the 
great monasteries 2 hold the rank of bishop. Thirdly, two new bishops have 
recently been installed by Cyril (Kirollos) VI, one for public, oecumenical and 
social services, 3 the other in charge of theological and educational institu¬ 
tions, 4 both stationed in Cairo and without regular sees. Fourthly, four arch¬ 
bishops and bishops reside in foreign countries - one at Jerusalem, two in 
the Sudan 5 and Uganda, one in South Africa, and one newly created bishop 

1 These are the Archbishops of al-Sharqiya, al-Gharbiya (including al-Behaira and 
Kafr al-Shaikh), al-Minufiya, al-Daqahliya, al-Qaliubiya, al-Glza, al-Faiyum, Beni Suef, 
Dayrut, Manfalut, Asiut, Abu Tig (including Tahta and al-Maragha), Suhag, Akhmin. 
Girga, al-Balyana, Qena (including Qus and Naqada), and Luxor (including Isna and 

2 Al-Suryan, Anba Bshoi, Abu Maqar, al-Baramous, Anba Bula, Anba Antonius and 
al-Muharraq. St Samuel, sparsely inhabited, does not have a bishop. 

3 Bishop Samuel, a graduate in law from Cairo University, of education from the 
American University at Cairo, of theology from the Clerical College and a Master of 
Arts from Princeton. He is a member of the Central Committee of the World Council 
of Churches. 

4 Bishop Shenuda, a graduate from the English Department of the Faculty of Letters 
in Alexandria University and of the Clerical College in Cairo. 

6 For the north or Nubia, his title is archbishop of Omdurman, 'Atbara and Nubia; the 
other, archbishop of Khartoum, the south and Uganda. 


of Kuwait. 1 Fifthly, Ethiopia has twenty-four bishops and archbishops, in¬ 
cluding Patriarch-Catholicos Anba Basilius, whom the pope of Alexandria 
consecrated at Cairo in the presence of Emperor Haile Selassie on 28 June 
1959. This came as the result of a treaty whereby the primacy of Alexandria 
over Ethiopia has been recognized in perpetuity. The number of bishoprics 
has varied from time to time in accordance with the expansion or shrinkage 
of population, reaching a maximum of approximately one hundred prior to 
the Arab Conquest. 

The Church has three vicars-general. Two of these are priests, one in charge 
of the patriarchal administration in Cairo, and another in Alexandria. The 
third, in Jerusalem, is always the archbishop 2 of that important see. Under 
the bishops and archbishops - all monks of course - are the secular priests, 
who are all married men. These may be ordinary priests (presbyters) or arch¬ 
priests by rank of Hegonienos or Qummus. A priest must marry before his 
ordination; otherwise he remains celibate. If he loses his wife, he may remarry 
only after withdrawing from the priesthood. There is absolutely no marriage 
after ordination. Tacit agreement among the bishops has been reached on 
the educational standards of priests, and the condition of graduation from 
the clerical college is now in force. Priests are subsidized by a small stipend 
in addition to free offerings and voluntary fees for marriages and other 

The class of deacons in the Coptic Church in modern times has consisted 
mainly of children assisting in the service as a chorus. Efforts have been made, 
however, to revive the older and more important position of the deacon and 
archdeacon in the Church. Originally, both were parallel to the priest and 
archpriest, and their task in helping with a religious sendee was extended to 
the faithful outside the church. Deacons marry after ordination, and if they 
lose a wife they can remarry as simple laymen. On the other hand, they may 
remain celibate and live in the world on a voluntarily monastic basis. As such, 
they are eligible to the highest Church office in the hierarchy, including the 
episcopate and even the patriarchate. Athanasius was raised from the diacon- 
ate to the patriarchate in the fourth century. It would seem from the early 
records of the Church that in reality most of the first patriarchs had been 
deacons or archdeacons. The idea behind that system may have been that 
monks and hermits had lost touch with the v/orld, whereas celibate deacons 
and archdeacons qualified for more effective service in the patriarchate. The 
mediaeval custom of reserving the patriarchal throne for a regular monk from 
the wilderness may have been an innovation of later times. 

The chanters amongst the Copts are usually blind singers found in most 

1 Stationed at Johannesburg; created in the summer of 1963. 

2 The present archbishop, originally a monk of Anba Antonios, is Basilcus II, who has 
a doctorate in theology from Thessalonica and has written books in Arabic and in Greek. 


churches. Nevertheless, chanters in some of the churches nowadays are not 
blind at all. A special section of the clerical college at present provides them 
with the training required for their office. A fine chanter can always make a 
splendid contribution to the liturgies. 

The monastic rule in the Coptic Church is still important. Each of the seven 
remaining inhabited monasteries is a separate entity under a bishop or an 
abbot nominated directly by the patriarch and always under his personal 
jurisdiction with no obligation to the local archbishop. From the community 
of monks, totalling about three hundred in the aforementioned monasteries, 
are elected all bishops, archbishops and the patriarch. 

In and around Cairo, we find several nunneries, already enumerated in our 
survey of monasticism. The total number of Coptic nuns at present is about 
150, and a change in their status seems imminent. Previously, nuns were 
retiring, old and disabled maidens or widows. They are now being encouraged 
by Pope Cyril (Kirollos) VI to assume some measure of social service to the 
community. One nun, a former employee in an oil company, made a tour of 
centres of social service in Europe and is now engaged in the creation of a 
new order for public service, - a commendable revolution in a neglected 
corner of Coptic life. 

Finally, it must not be forgotten that the whole monastic order in the Coptic 
Church came into existence at first as a separate religio-secular entity without 
ecclesiastical status in the hierarchy. The incorporation of the monastic order 
within the body politic of the Church gradually took place later. 

Rites and Ceremonials 

The consensus of opinion about the rites and ceremonials of the Coptic 
Church has been one of universal reverence and profound spiritualitv. Even 
those with a consistently prejudiced outlook are stricken with awe at the 
sight of the Coptic religious performance in its primitive setting. ‘Perhaps 
nowhere in the world’, writes an eminent Catholic historian of the Eastern 
churches, ‘can you imagine yourself back in so remote an age as when you 
are in a Coptic church. You go into a strange dark building; at first the 
European needs an effort to realize that it is a church at all, it looks so different 
from our usual associations. But it is enormously older than the clustered 
columns, moulded arches and glowing clerestory, than the regular aisles and 
balanced chapels to which we are accustomed. In a Coptic church you come 
into low dark spaces, a labyrinth of irregular openings. There is little light 
from the narrow windows. Dimly you see strange rich colours and tarnished 
gold, all mellowed by dirt. In from the vault above hang ropes bearing the 


white ostrich eggs, 1 and lamps sparkle in the gloom. Before you is the ex¬ 
quisite carving, inlay and delicate patterns, of the haikal 2 screen. All around 
you see, dusty and confused, wonderful pieces of wood carving. Behind the 
screen looms the curve of the apse; on the thick columns and along the walls 
under the low cupolas are inscriptions in exquisite lettering - Coptic and 
Arabic.’ 3 In this inspiring atmosphere, the ancient Coptic liturgy offers one 
of the most impressive scenes of Christian antiquity. 

The divine liturgy or mass is the central function in all Coptic sacramental 
offices. Indeed, all the numerous offices connected with baptism, matrimony, 
extreme unction and the rest converge upon the Mass and should end with 
Holy Communion. At present, the Copts use only three liturgies, those of 
St Basil the Great, St Gregory Nazianzen and St Mark. The last was recorded 
and perfected by St Cyril the Great, whose name is usually associated with 
it. The Basilian Liturgy is habitually used throughout the year, while the 
Gregorian Anaphora is reserved for the festive occasions of Christmas, the 
Epiphany and Easter. The Cyrillian Anaphora of St Mark is rather long and 
little known, and apparently it is used chiefly in the monasteries on account 
of the purity of its Egyptian texture and sound. All three liturgies have their 
counterparts in the Greek originals, but they are not the only ones in Coptic 
history. The Ethiopians have conserved fourteen liturgies, and at least some 
of these must be ascribed to lost Coptic originals. 

Although only a brief account of the Basilian liturgy will be given here, it 
is necessary to say that the Canonical Hours of the Coptic Church are a 
different set of prayers, of which some usually precede, some succeed the 
normal liturgy. 4 Whereas the liturgy cannot be celebrated without an ordained 

1 Regarded as a symbol of steadfast watchfulness from the way the ostrich buries her 
eggs in the sand and stays at a distance with her eyes fixed on that spot. 

2 Arabic word for sanctuary, the area behind the screen or iconostasis. It also applies 
to the altar specifically. 

3 Fortescue, Lesser Eastern Churches , pp. 288-9. 

4 For the Coptic Liturgy, apart from the numerous Copto-Arabic editions in Cairo, the 
following works may be quoted for reference in English: The Coptic Liturgy , Authorised 
by His Holiness Abba Kirollos l T (pub. Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate; Cairo-U.A.R., 
1963); The Coptic Morning Service of the Lord's Day , tr. John, Marquis of Bute (London, 
1908); Coptic Offices , tr. R. M. Woolley (London, 1930); The Liturgies of St Mark , St James, 
St Clement , St Chrysostom , St Basil , cd. (in Greek) J. M. Neale (London, 1875); J. Garrido, 
La Messe Copte (Cairo, Institut Copte, n.d.). The older works arc still invaluable, such as 
E. Renaudot, Liturgiarum orientalium collection Accedunt dissertationes quatuor: ( 1 ) De Litur- 
giarirn orientalium origine et au tori fate, (II) De Liturgiis Alexandria s , (III) De Lingua coptica, 
(IV) De patriarcha Alexandrino cum officio ordinationis ejusdem , 2 vols. (Paris, 1706; 2nd edn. 
Frankfurt, 1847); E E. Brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western (Oxford, 1896), one vol. 
only. See also P. Alfonso r Abdullah: L'Ordinamento Liturgico di Gabriele H, 88 ° - Pairiarca 
Copto (1409-27), (Studia Orientalia Cristiana, Centro Francescano di Studi Oricntali 
Cristiani), (Cairo, 1962). A meticulous analytical study of the Coptic Liturgy of St Basil 
has recently been made by Munir Barsoum (Cairo, 1964) in Coptic and Arabic. In English, 
see survey by O. H. E. Burmestcr in a number of extensive articles in Eastern Churches 


priest, the hours are prayers open to all. They were practised in the earliest 
Pachomian monasteries in the fourth century, and the monks and most abbots, 
including St Pachomius himself, were rarely ordained when the cenobitic 
movement began. Nevertheless, each member of the order religiously recited 
the seven hours every day and night. These seven hours consisted of the 
Morning Prayer, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline and the Midnight 
Prayer, to which the monks usually added a ‘prayer of the veil’ (i.e., the veil 
of darkness) before going to bed. 

An altar or even the vessels and instruments of Holy Communion may not 
be used a second time on the same day for the Eucharistic Liturgy. The 
liturgy may, however, be repeated on a second of the three altars within the 
majority of Coptic sanctuaries. The holy bread, leavened but not salted, is 
baked by the priest or an authorized person in the morning of the day it is to 
be used. The small and rather flat round cakes are stamped with a cross 
surrounded by twelve smaller crosses and an inscription from the Coptic 
Trisagion: ‘Agios O Theos, Agios Ischyros, Agios Athanatos.’ * 1 The wine 
used in the offices is unfermented grape juice. The main utensils of the 
Eucharistic celebration include the chalice, paten, 2 asterisk, 3 spoon, and ark. 4 
On the altar may be found also a gospel, cross and a fan for keeping flies and 
insects from touching the chalice, in addition to four candlesticks on the four 
corners. 5 The vestments and insignia for the solemn occasion are the stich - 
arion, 6 amice, 7 sleeves, epitrachelion, 8 orarion, 9 girdle, phelonion, crown or 

Quarterly (pub. Exeter), VII, 6 (1948), 373-403; VIII, 1 (1949), 1-39; VIII, 5 (1950), 
291-316; IX, 1 (1951), 1-27, under the title of ‘Rites and Ceremonials of the Coptic 
Church’. Burmester’s articles are supplemented by comprehensive bibliographies. Some 
useful gleanings are to be found in Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (West¬ 
minster, 1954). See pp. 162 ff. under ‘The Egyptian Tradition’ and ‘Prayer of Oblation 
of Bishop Sarapion’. See also pp. 217 ff., 446 ff., 504 ff.; references to St Mark’s Liturgy. 

1 ‘Holy God! Holy and strong! Holy and immortal!’ From a hymn sung by Nicodemus 
and Joseph at the Lord’s entombment. The cakes are pierced five times around the central 
Cross, symbolizing the nails, crown of thorns and spear used in the Passion. The chosen 
cake is called Hama!, i.e. the ‘Lamb’. 

2 Silver flat dish, 23 cm. in diameter and 3-5 cm. deep, for the Hama/. 

3 Two half-hoops of silver or metal, 13 cm. high, riveted together at right angles; to 
be placed over the paten to prevent the cover from touching the Hama/. 

4 Cubical box, 25 cm. wide and 29 cm. high, with paintings of the Last Supper, Our 
Lady, angel and church patron saint on the four sides; intended to hold chalice until 

5 Other implements inside the sanctuary include censer, incense box, ewer and basin 
for washing priest’s hands before touching the Hama/, cruets for the Myron, or chrism, 
and an artophorion , or small silver box for conveyance of part of the Precious Body moist¬ 
ened with the Precious Blood to those who want Communion but cannot attend the 

6 Arabic tunyah, white robe reaching feet with long sleeves, embroidered with Crosses, 
worn by officiating priest or prelate as well as deacons. 

7 Arabic tailasan, wide strip of embroidered linen hanging down the back and ending 

up with hood worn by officiating priest. 


mitre, onophrion, 1 cap and pastoral staff. The Copts prefer the colour white 
for the vestments as a sign of purity and chastity, and the officiating priest 
and his aides wear no shoes inside the sanctuary. Fasting is a binding condi¬ 
tion for the celebrant and participants as well as those intending to take 

Strictly speaking, the preparatory prayers for the Eucharistic Liturgy begin 
on the eve of the day of its celebration with the Service of the Offering of the 
Evening Incense, usually after the Ninth Hour. This is resumed in the Mid¬ 
night Hour with a series of set readings from the Psalter, prayers, hymns and 
commemoration of a saint. The Copts always remember their saints and 
martyrs. Next morning, another Service of the Offering of Incense is repeated. 
This is followed by an introduction of the liturgy and the presentation of 
the ‘lamb’. 2 Thus the solemn liturgy proper is inaugurated with the Nicsean 
Creed, hymns, Gospel readings, and a long series of responses in which the 
priest, the deacons and the congregation become so involved that the visitor 
may be prone to dismiss the whole affair as sheer confusion. The reality is 
that this is the core of the Coptic service, when all seem to engage in a ruthless 
struggle for the sanctification of the occasion. The Copts deeply feel the real 
Presence and unreservedly lift their voices to Heaven in exactly the same way 
as did their unsophisticated, perhaps primitive, ancestors. Their litanies, or 
intercessory prayers, encompass almost everything and everybody. They pray 
for the dead, the sick and those who are travelling, for the offerings, for the 
Nile, the fish and all things livings for priests, prelates and rulers, for security 
and mercy, for the winds and all the good things of the earth, and for total 

The Liturgy is actually officiated in three main stages. The first is the 
Liturgy of the Catechumens, 3 reminiscent of the days when intending but 
unbaptized would-be Christians were allowed to attend church up to the 
point where the mystery of the Sacrament began. After the dismissal of the 
catechumens, the Liturgy of the Faithful 4 is conducted, with prayers for the 
peace of the Church, for the saints and martyrs whom the Copts never seem 
to forget, for the patriarch, and for the congregation. Its consummation is 
the Kiss of Peace, and all are ‘exalted beyond all power of Speech’ while the 
choir sings to the accompaniment of cymbals. The final phase is the Ana- 

8 Arabic batrashil , band richly embroidered with Crosses and twelve Apostles, reaching 
feet from breast with opening to pass the head, worn by higher prelates. 

9 Arabic Zunnar , narrow strip embroidered with Crosses, worn by deacons, who pass 
it under right arm with ends hanging over left shoulder. 

1 Arabic burnus, similar to Latin cope, without hood for ordinary priest, but with one 
for higher prelates. 

2 The Arabic Hama/. 

3 Burmcster, op. cit., VIII, 1, 9-14. 

4 Ibid., 14-20. 


phora 1 proper, where the ‘mystery of godliness’ is accomplished by sanctify¬ 
ing the Holy Body and the Precious Blood. 

By way of example let us quote one edificatory prayer from this phase of 
the Anaphora for the interested souls. It runs like this: ‘Master, Lord Our 
God, the great and eternal, Who art wondrous in glory. Who keepeth His 
covenant and His mercy with them who love Him with all their heart. Who 
hath given to us redemption of sins through His only-begotten Son, Jesus 
Christ Our Lord, the Life of all, the Help of those who flee to Him, the Hope 
of those who cry unto Him. Before Whom stand thousands of thousands and 
myriads of myriads of holy angels and archangels, the cherubim and the 
seraphim, and all the innumerable host of heavenly powers. God, Who hath 
sanctified these gifts which are set forth, through the coming down upon 
them of the Holy Spirit, Thou hast purified them. Purify us also. Our Master, 
from our sins, the hidden and the manifest; and every thought which is not 
pleasing to Thy goodness, God the lover of man, may it be far from us. Purify 
our souls and our bodies and our spirits and our hearts and our eyes and our 
understanding and our thoughts and our consciences, so that with a pure 
heart and an enlightened soul and an unashamed countenance and a steadfast 
faith and a perfect love and a firm hope we may have courage with fearless 
boldness to pray to Thee, God, the Holy Father Who art in the heavens, and 
to say: Our Father which art in heaven,’ etc . 2 

The central event in the remaining part of the Anaphora is the Holy Con¬ 
fession, which is recognition of ‘The Holy Body and the Precious Blood and 
True Blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of Our God. Amen.’ This is repeated 
and confirmed by the congregation. ‘The Floly Things to the holy,’ and the 
Communion follows while the deacon exclaims: ‘Pray for the worthy com¬ 
munion of the Immaculate, Heavenly and Holy Mysteries,’ to which the 
congregation responds: ‘Kyrie eleison!’ After thanksgiving, the inclination 
of heads, and the priestly dismissal of the faithful with a blessing hand over 
each head, the drama of the liturgy is ended. 

1 Burmestcr, op. cit., VIII, 1, 17-37. 

2 Ibid., 25-6. I have a personal incentive for the choice of this particular prayer. As a 
child, I remember my own father repeating it amongst his many religious recitations in 
his prayers. I was deeply impressed by the text in the original version, and the sound of 
its beautiful phrases still ring in my ear after the passing of so many decades. I thought 
the reader might be entitled to one of the reminiscences of my own childhood in my 
Coptic atmosphere. 


Coptic Art 

The discovery of Coptic art, 1 which is a relatively recent event, has aroused 
a great deal of interest and excitement among specialists in the fields of general 
art, archaeology and historical studies. At present, all the major museums of 
many countries have devoted one or even several halls to exhibits of purely 
Coptic provenance. The Coptic Museum itself had emerged as a separate 
entity only in 1908. Before that date, its nucleus had been merely a secondary 
department within the Egyptian Museum. There may be some variance of 
opinion as to the importance of the place which Coptic art occupies in the 
universal scheme of man’s artistic achievement. But there is unanimity 
amongst all as to the superior qualities which have given it a distinctive 
character of its own. In originality, depth of feeling, and unusual vigour, 
Coptic art has earned for itself a position of independence in Christian an¬ 
tiquity. At one time, it was summarily dismissed as a ramification of Byzantine 
art. At another, it was regarded as a minor outgrowth from dynastic archae¬ 
ology. It was not long, however, before both propositions were found in¬ 
adequate, since Coptic art betrayed a multitude of influences arising from 
waves of foreign invasions, all of which left their mark on Egyptian culture. 
Another factor in the artistic orientation of Coptic Egypt was the substitution 
of Christianity for the ancient Egyptian mythology. Thus Greek, Roman, 
Persian, Byzantine and even Palmyrian artistic influence can be traced at 
various times in Egypt, though it would be a grave error to contend that 
Egyptian art became subject to any of these varied disciplines at any one time. 

In Coptic art certain considerations are inevitable. That all the aforemen¬ 
tioned influences converged in the art of Egypt and contributed to the 
mainstream of Coptic art cannot be denied. But it must be remembered that 
their impact was felt more in Lower than in Upper Egypt. The Greek trends 
were essentially aristocratic in character and accordingly centred on the capital 
Alexandria, the Greek towns in the Delta and the Faiyum oasis. Strictly 
speaking, these influences were never able to reach the common man. While 
the mummy portraits of the Faiyum and the exquisite bone and ivory carvings 

1 J. Strzygowski, Koptische Kunst (Vienna, 1904); Al. Gayct, L'art Copte-Fcole d'Alex- 
andrie , architecture monastique, sculpture , peinture , art somptuaire (Paris, 1902); Brooklyn 
Museum, Pagan and Christian Art , Egyptian Art from the First to the Tenth Century a.d. 
(Brooklyn, N.Y., 1941); idem, Fate Egyptian and Coptic Art (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1943); 
idem, Coptic Egypt (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1944); A. Badawy, L'art copte - Les influences egypt- 
iennes (Cairo, 1949); idem, L’ Art copte - Les influences hellenistiques ct romaines (Cairo, 1953); 
Olsen Foundation, Coptic Art (Guildford, Conn., 1955); G. Duthuit, La sculpture copte 
(Paris, 1931); V. de Griineisen, Les caracteristiques del'art copte (Florence, 1922); C. Mulock 
and M. T. Langdon, The Icons of Yuhanna and Ibrahim the Scribe (London, 1946). Separate 
articles on the subject have also appeared in journals; cf. Kammcrer, Coptic Bibliography , 
nos. 2787-2823. 


of Alexandrian craftsmanship never became part of the art of the common 
man, the less sophisticated Roman way appeared to strike deeper root with 
Egyptian folks in stonework and clay. The religious factor, of course, was 
paramount in Coptic art, as may be witnessed in the evolution of the stone 
stelae, from the pagan figure with a bunch of grapes in one hand and a dove 
in the other to the Christian with hands raised in a posture of prayer to the 
Cross. After the spread of Christianity, the Egyptian artist abhorred the 
dynastic heritage of his forebears as pagan and strove to dissociate himself 
from the older tradition. But that process led to the debasement of the ancient 
Egyptian art. Nevertheless, pagan symbolism persisted in Coptic art even 
after Christianity became the official religion of the state. Moreover, the re¬ 
percussions of Egyptian apocryphal literature and Gnosticism were clearly 
felt amidst the artistic representations of the early centuries of our era. In all 
religious paintings of the time, however, the Coptic artist continued the tradi¬ 
tions of his ancestral system in the use of bold colouring with astonishing 
effect. He did not know the half-tone in his paintings. 

It was this composite background which gave birth to a new school of art. 
Roughly, the first three centuries of our era saw the development of what 
might be termed ‘proto-Coptic’ art, a fluid term still hard to define with 
archaeological precision. It could even antedate Egyptian Christianity, occur¬ 
ring in the later Ptolemaic period and the early Roman period when the 
country was impoverished by heavy taxation and neglect of its irrigation 
system. Popular art found its expression in clay and textiles, which were 
within reach of the humble folks’ limited means. Objects of terra-cotta are 
abundant from that period, and fragments of more perishable material survive 
in smaller amounts in burial grounds. The prevailing feature in both is the 
Roman religious syncretism where Egyptian, Oriental and Graeco-Roman 
deities together with mythological scenes are profusely represented for votive 
purposes. ‘Coptic art’ par excellence with ostensible Christian influence began 
to flourish in the fourth century, and it endured even beyond the Arab Con¬ 
quest of the seventh century. This was pre-eminently the age of the great 
christological quarrel between the Greeks and the Egyptians culminating in 
Chalcedon (451) with its aftermath of persecutions which intensified the 
nationalist trends in Egypt and the general purge of Greek influences from 
native art and literature. It was in this manner that the Egyptian artist finally 
came into his own, and the standard decorative motifs of Coptic art emerged 
in stonework, painting, woodwork, terra-cotta, ivories and the renowned 
monochrome and polychrome fabrics from Coptic looms. 

Although the ravages of time have reduced the archaeological and artistic 
remains of the Coptic age to a negligible fraction, and although that minor 
residue suffered still further at the hands of the earlier Egyptologists and 
Islamologists who aimed at saving their own domains by looking askance at 


the Coptic material intermingled with their findings, it has at least been 
possible to accumulate enough material to construe the salient characteristics 
of that humble but most remarkable art. The older monasteries in the wilder¬ 
ness behind the sands of the desert, a number of ancient churches nestled 
beyond sight in the obscure alleys of Old Cairo, the White and Red monas¬ 
teries near Suhag, and a few sites of Coptic excavations, notably at Abu 
Mina, 1 Ahnas, 2 Bawit, 3 St Jeremiah, 4 St Shenute 5 and St Simeon’s 6 near 
Aswan, together with many others explored throughout Egypt, have yielded 
artistic and architectural treasures of which the best specimens are displayed 
in the Coptic Museum. 7 

It would be presumptuous within our limitations to attempt to formulate 
the fruits of Coptic excavations or to present a comprehensive picture of 
Coptic archaeological and artistic research. Such studies are still in their infancy 
when compared with other similar fields. Nevertheless, it will be illuminating 
here to offer a brief outline of one site by way of illustration, namely, Bawit, 
where treasures of Coptic art have been buried under mounds of sand for 
centuries. The monastic settlement of Bawit owed its origin to Apa Apollo, 
a holy man and a disciple of St Pachomius the Great, who retired to a cave 
near the town of Meir, where the Holy Family is said to have taken refuge 
during the flight to Egypt. When that saint died in 395, he already had three 
hundred followers in what seemed like an unusual beginning for a monastery. 
With increasing numbers the area grew to formidable dimensions in subse¬ 
quent centuries. New churches and buildings were constructed, and monastic 
artists embellished them with paintings of the highest importance in the 
history of Coptic art. Several frescoes, graffiti and inscriptions remain intact 
and have been dated. Some of its churches, in common with those at Suhag, 
Isneh and Aswan, were built in the reign of Justinian. An inscription shows 
that the monastery was inhabited as late as the eleventh century under Arab 

1 C. M. Kaufmann, Die Ausgrabung der Menas-Heiligtiimcr in der Mareotiswsiite , 3 vols. 
in 1 (Cairo, 1906-8). 

2 U. Monnerct dc Villard, Da scultura ad Ahnas , Note sulVorigine dell'arte copta (JNlilat, 

I9 2 3). 

3 J. Cledat, De monastere et le necropole de Baoidt , 2 vols. (Cairo, 1904-16); E. Chassinui, 
Fouilles a Baouit (Cairo, 1911); G. Schlumbcrger, ‘Lcs fouillcs dc Jean Maspcro a Baonta 
en 1913’, in Comptes-rendus , Academie des inscriptions et des belles-Lettrcs de l'Institut de 
France (Paris, 1919), pp. 243-8. 

4 J. E. Quibell, ‘The Monastery of St Jcremias at Saqqara*, in Comptes-rendus of the 
2nd International Congress of Archaeology (Cairo, 1909), pp. 268-70; idem, Excavations 
at Saqqara , 4 vols. (Cairo, 1907-13). (Inscriptions cd. Sir Herbert Thompson.) 

5 U. Monneret de Villard, Des convents pres de Sohag (Deyr el-Abiad et Deyr el-Abmar ), 
2 vols. (Milan, 1925-6). 

6 Idem, Description generate du monastere de St Simeon a Aswan (Milan, 1927). 

T Such as the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun and St Epiphaneus at Luxor; see Evelyn- 
White and Wenlock, op. cit.; U. Monnerct de Villard, Des eglises du monastere des Syriens 
au Wadi en Natrun (Milan, 1928). See also Ch. Bachatly, De monastere dc Pbcrbammon dans 
la Dbib aide (Fouillcs de la Societe d’Archeologie Coptc), 3 vols., in progress. 


rule. Then, in the course of the Nubian campaign organized by Shirkuh 
during the twelfth century, we may assume that Bawit, together with other 
Christian monuments of Upper Egypt at Quft, Isneh and Aswan, must have 
suffered the first of a series of ruinous attacks by Muslim foreign rulers. In 
the following, or at the very latest in the fourteenth century, the monastery 
was completely discarded, and as usual the sand crept over it and filled the 
whole area. Bawit thus became one of those ko///s, or mounds, which are 
found as archaeological sites in Egypt. In 1900, the French archaeologist 
M. Cledat, a member of the French Institute of Cairo, was commissioned to 
chart the Necropolis of Meir. During his exploration, he was attracted by the 
extraordinary colouring of the sand of Kom Bawit and voluntarily made 
some soundings which revealed the existence of structures within. He could 
not return to the site for two years, when he succeeded in obtaining authoriza¬ 
tion to excavate Bawit with the ridiculous fund of five hundred francs. He 
did enough with that money to show the magnitude of the discovery, which 
brought M. Chassinat, his chief at the Institute, to the project in 1911, and 
M. Maspero came in 1913. 1 The harvest of Christian antiquities from the area 
exceeded the wildest expectations, and special accommodation had to be made 
for it both in the Louvre and in the Egyptian Museum. 2 In fact, the themes 
of the paintings of Bawit represent all three stages of Coptic art: the classical 
with its mythological figures, the transitional with its apocryphal characters 
and finally the Coptic Christian. The glorious apse of the principal church, 
with its striking frescoes in two registers, now in the Coptic Museum, 3 is a 
remarkable composition in theme and simple colouring. The lower register 
consists of a central seated Madonna with the infant Jesus in typically Coptic 
attire, and a row of six apostles and a local saint on each side - including, of 
course, Apa Apollo. The upper register has the figure of the Semite, beardless 
young Jesus seated on a jewelled chair, the open Gospel with ‘O Agios’ (Oh! 
Holy!) thrice repeated in inscription under His left hand and the right hand 
raised in benediction. His head has a halo with inset Cross, and round Him 
are the four symbols of the four Evangelists and two full angels. The primi¬ 
tive purity of the Bawit paintings is overpowering. 

The stonework from St Jeremiah’s Monastery at Saqqarah contains capi¬ 
tals of Corinthian style with the acanthus leaf, palm, vine and cruciform 
ornamentation. Front-facing angels with the Cross in a crown of laurel, 
geometrical interlacing, animal and bird motifs, and hunting scenes are also 

1 See summary in chapter on Coptic Art in S. Chauleur, Histoire des Coptes d’Egypte 
(Paris, T960), pp. 181-6. 

2 J. des Gravicrs, ‘Inventairc des objets coptes de la sallc de Baouit au Louvre’, in 
R ivista di archeologia cristiana , IX (1932), 51-103; G. Mounereau, £ La Salle copte de 
Baouit’, in Chroniqtie d’Egypfe, V, 9 (1930), 115-16. 

3 All recent guides to the museum in English or French contain a full reproduction 
of the apse here described. Sec also Plates III and IV in this volume. 


represented. The woodcuts on ebony panels at the Church of St Sergius 
representing the Annunciation and other biblical themes and mounted saints 
from the tenth century are dwarfed by the magnificent fourth-century syca¬ 
more gate of St Barbara with its exquisite panels, of which the one depicting 
the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding an ass on Palm Sunday leaves the 
spectator speechless. The superb figurines and decorated clay lamps fill 
museums and are the joy of the modest collector. Carved bones and ivories 
are also to be found everywhere with their interesting themes, both pagan 
and Christian. Articles of domestic use such as combs, plates and jewel boxes 
are either painted or carved with interesting scenes. Icons, stained glass, metal¬ 
work and jewellery are among the accomplishments of Coptic craftsmanship. 
The bronze Roman eagle excavated in the Museum grounds within the 
precincts of Fort Babylon is an impressive work of art which adorns one of 
the Coptic Museum halls, together with a multitude of metal crosses and 

The Coptic textile industry has been attracting a great deal of attention in 
recent years, and the accumulation of specimens of embroidered fabrics of 
astounding beauty are on display in many museums. 1 The Coptic weaver’s 
dexterity produced fantastic scenes from classical antiquity, which were re¬ 
placed by Christian themes from the fourth century. His material consisted 
usually of linen and wool, and some of the polychrome portraits can match 
any painting in beauty. The textile colours were usually subdued, and brown 
embroidery was much used. Shrouds, tunics, head-dresses, church hangings, 
and table covers of varied sizes, sometimes inscribed but generally embroi¬ 
dered, have been found in both monochrome and polychrome, with human, 
animal and plant motifs as well as a wide variety of crosses. Rug material with 
loop stitch is not uncommon. The Faiyum, al-Bahnasa and Akhmim were 
noted as great centres of tira^ or weaving, although other smaller towns of 
many districts have their own workshops. Figures became increasingly 
stylized in the early centuries of the Islamic period, and the use of more 
geometrical designs became customary. Nevertheless, the feeling of move¬ 
ment and the sense of liveliness in the stylized human and animal figures 

1 A. F. Kendrick, Catalogue of Textiles from Burying Grounds in Egypt, Victoria and Albert 
Museum, 3 vols. (London, 1920-2); A. WulfT and \V. F. Volbach, Spdtantike and Kopt- 
ische Stoffe aus Agyptiscben Grab]'unden in den staatlicben Museen (Berlin, 1926); idem, Catalogo 
del Museo Sacro della Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana , III, 1, Tessuti (Vatican, 1942); A. J. B. 
Wace, Exposition d'art copte - guide (Societe d’Archeologic Coptc; Cairo, 1944); The 
Dumbarton Oaks Collection Handbook (Washington, D.C., 1955), pp. 155 ff.; L. M. Wilson, 
Ancient Textiles fro?n Egypt in the University of Michigan Collection (Ann Arbor, 1933); 
N. P. Britton, A Study of Some Early Islamic Textiles in the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, 
1938); A. C. Weibel, Two Thousand Years of Textiles, Detroit Institute of Arts (New York, 
1952). See brochures issued by the Textile Museum, Washington D.C.; also Kammcrer’s 
Coptic Bibliography, nos. 2853-2992. The newly issued Textile Museum Journal was in¬ 
augurated in 1962 with the study ‘A Coptic Tapestry of Byzantine Style’, by R. Berliner. 


became a source of inspiration for some of the most notable modern masters, 
including Matisse, Derain and Picasso. When the American painter Marsden 
Hartley discovered Coptic textile portraiture, he set out to build up a collec¬ 
tion of his own, and his style was affected by this contact. 1 The creative 
nature of the ancient Coptic weaver’s product is another subject for more 
detailed study. The hereditary, latent skill in the handling of the loom among 
village youths has recently been the object of a new school, with remarkable 
results. 2 

Coptic Architecture 

Occasional reference has been made to the subject of Coptic ecclesiastical 
architecture, and here it is planned to cast a quick glance at its early develop¬ 
ment. Though many ancient Coptic monuments suffered greatly from hostile 
incursions and many more fell into disuse and were ruined, a representative 
number of monastic and church structures have survived in their early original 
forms. Consequently, the archaeologist has been able to construct a fair picture 
of the essentials of Coptic architecture. Literature on this interesting facet 
of Coptic history has been growing steadily, 3 but much remains to be done 
on the sites and mounds which fill the length and breadth of the Nile valley. 
Some of these are known, but unexcavated, while innumerable others are still 
undiscovered and untouched. 

It is not inconceivable, however, that the oldest forms of Coptic churches 
were derived from their ancestral places of worship, that is, the ancient 
Egyptian temples. In fact, the spread of the earliest Christianity in Egypt 
resulted at first in the conversion of the pagan temples into churches. More- 

1 N. B. Rodney, in Coptic Art (Olsen Foundation), p. 5. 

2 The idea of the spontaneity of art coming from within was the underlying principle in 
a school of popular art started by a great Egyptian educationist and artist, the late Habib 
Gorgi, whose work was displayed in London and Paris under U.N.E.S.C.O. auspices. 
The works of art produced in his school were sculpture and textile weaving. Finally he 
relegated the weaving to his gifted son-in-law, Ramses Wissa Wasef, who established a 
special school for that purpose at the village of Harrania, in the shadow of the pyramids 
of Giza. The results, exhibited in numerous European art centres, were fantastic and may 
be seen from a sumptuous publication entitled Tapestries from Eg}pt, Woven by the Children 
of Harrania, by W. and B. Forman and R. W. Wasef (London, 1961). 

3 A. J. Butler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Eg)pt, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1884); Somers 
Clarke, Christian Antiquities in the Nile Halley, A contribution towards the Study of Ancient 
Churches (Oxford, 1912); see also Evelyn-White, Winlock, and Monneret de Villard, 
op. cit. For small but useful guides, see O. H. E. Burmester, A Guide to the Ancient Coptic 
Churches of Cairo (Cairo, 1955); A. Badawy, Guide deVEgypte Chretienne (Cairo, 1953); both 
in the publications of the Societe de Archeologie Copte. Cf. Kammerer’s Coptic Biblio¬ 
graphy, nos. 2652-2735. 


over, numerous instances are reported of Christian ascetics who sought seclu¬ 
sion by living in ancient tombs and funerary shrines. 1 Later when the Copts 
began to erect their own chapels independently, it was normal for their 
architects to copy the existing temple models of the master builders of an¬ 
tiquity, more especially as these seemed to fulfil the requirements of the new 
faith during the first four centuries of transition between paganism and 

The topography of the ancient Egyptian temple had already been shown 
to have consisted of three main divisions. First, the outer gate led into an 
open court surrounded by two rows of columns with a narrow stone roofing. 
Secondly, beyond that huge quadrangle devoted to general worshippers, the 
hypostyle hall followed. This space was filled with crowded columns in close 
rows supporting a massive stone roof and reserved for the royal family and 
the aristocracy. The third section of the temple, at the end, was a closed and 
rather dimly lit small chamber, wrapped in great mystery. This constituted 
the inner shrine, the sanctum sanctorum or holy of holies, where the deity 
resided, and which was accessible only to the high priest or pharaoh. 

The primitive Coptic churches appear to have retained this triple division, 
which may still be witnessed in some of the chapels of the ancient monasteries. 
The innermost part behind the iconostasis was the sanctuary ( haikal ) where 
the priests and deacons alone were admitted to officiate the mystery of the 
Holy Sacrament. Outside the sanctuary, the central part of the church was 
reserved for baptized Christians, while a third section at the narthex or en¬ 
trance was left open for the unbaptized catechumens. As already shown, the 
Coptic liturgy is divided into three corresponding stages, namely, the Liturgy 
of the Catechumens, the Liturgy of the Faithful, and the Anaphora. Whereas 
the Catechumens were expected to depart after the first stage, the screen is 
later drawn to conceal the mystery of sanctification of the Precious Body and 
Blood before Holy Communion. 

At an unknown date, the distinction between the baptized Christian and 
the Catechumen began to disappear, and with it the divisions of the church 
gave way to the perpendicular triple sections of nave and aisles. In this way, 
the basilica style began to assert itself in Coptic ecclesiastical architecture. 
St Mena’s cathedral built by Arcadius (395-408) in the district of Mareotis 
near the Delta, the ruins of the magnificent cathedral at Ashmunain, and the 
Pved and White Monasteries of St Shenute at Suhag are fourth and fifth- 
century examples of that imminent change. On the other hand, the irregularity 
of church forms in Old Cairo indicates that the basilica style was only slowly 
adopted as the accepted standard. Llere we find churches consisting of the 

1 A. Badawy, Les premiers etablissemenis chretiens dans les anciennes tombes d'lijQp/e, 
Publications de l’lnstitut d’Etudes Orientalcs de la Bibliotheque Patriarcalc d’Alexandrie, 
No. 2 (Alexandria, 1953). 


sanctuary and a single enclosure for the congregation, while others have an 
additional side aisle usually reserved for women worshippers. A few have a 
gallery over the narthex also devoted for women. 

As a rule the choir area is one step higher than the church floor, and the 
sanctuary one more step above the choir. A wooden screen beautifully carved 
and richly inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl in cruciform or geometrical 
shapes conceals the sanctuary, which comprises three altars for alternate use 
in case of the celebration of several masses on the same day. Some ancient 
churches have apses and domes but no belfry. The domes are occasionally 
granary-shaped, as in the Church of Our Lady at Ma r adi on the bank of the 
Nile. The Copts use painted icons but no statuary. Few churches have side 
chapels, and the older ones usually contain saintly relics. 

In Old Cairo and many historic places, several churches originated in the 
fourth century, but most of them were destroyed and rebuilt during subse¬ 
quent ages, invariably on the original foundations. Though each church has a 
charm all its own, perhaps the most widely frequented ones are the churches 
of Abu Sarga and the Mu'allaqa, or Suspended Church of Our Lady, so 
named since it was built on one of the towers of Fort Babylon, probably for 
defensive purposes against mob rioting. The first was dedicated to two saints 
martyred in Syria, Sergius and Bacchus, and it stands over a subterranean 
crypt where, according to tradition, the fdoly Family rested at Old Cairo 
during the flight to Egypt. The other is much richer in objects of art. It 
became the seat of the patriarchate during the reign of Christodoulos in the 
eleventh century. Equally historic churches may be found in the provinces, 
many of them still unknown to archaeologists. 

Coptic Music 

In spite of the antiquity of Coptic religious music, 1 the science of Coptic 
musicology is still very young and none can speak with final authority of its 
specific details. Although the present account is no place for a specialized 
survey of all the data of a difficult subject, it may be helpful to note that there 
are two schools of thought on the status of Coptic music. The first school 
holds that Egyptian music was swamped by Byzantine music after the intro¬ 
duction of Christianity into the valley of the Nile. The arguments for this 
thesis are extant in standard works, which have long been accepted by un¬ 
suspecting students of music who had no other alternative. The second school 

1 A. S. Atiya, Coptic Music , brochure accompanied by a recording of selections from the 
Coptic Liturgy, prepared by the Institute of Coptic Studies, and published by Folkways 
(New York, i960); H. Hickmann, 4j siecles de musique dans J’Egypte ancienne a tracers la 
sculpture , la peinture , /’instrument (Paris, 1956). 


of thought is recent and still relatively unknown, but its exponents are ardent 
enthusiasts with a touch of nationalism. Their chief merit is their con¬ 
centration on the human sources of Coptic melodies in remote areas where 
external influences were unlikely. It will be illuminating to summarize their 

The historic factors in support of an independent Coptic musical heritage 
are multiple. That the Copts are the descendants of the ancient Egyptians is 
now generally recognized by most archaeologists. Bohairic Coptic is still 
essentially the language of the liturgy, though Arabic has been the spoken 
language of Egypt for approximately six centuries. The assumption, therefore, 
that ancient Egyptian vocal music has been preserved by the Copts in their 
religious chants has appeared to some as a plausible thesis, worthy of a serious 
enquiry. The most ancient music of the Copts was entirely vocal until the 
introduction of the cymbal and triangle in the course of the Middle Ages. It 
may be assumed, however, that Byzantine, Arabic and Oriental accretions 
were superimposed on the Coptic chants of urbanized churches; but the purer 
forms of primitive Coptic melodies were handed over from generation to 
generation in secluded monasteries and isolated country churches at inacces¬ 
sible spots in Upper Egypt and on the fringe of the desert. Furthermore, it 
must be remembered that after Chalcedon in 451, the Copts systematically set 
out to purge their literature, language and liturgy of all vestiges of Greek 
influence, and there is no reason to think that they made an exception of 
Byzantine music against their own native chants. 

Since all the aforementioned data were conflned to the realm of theorizing, 
it was necessary that someone should undertake serious research on the 
subject. A Copt of some wealth, namely Ragheb Moftah, decided to devote 
his time and fortune to the recording and analysis of Coptic offices from the 
most authoritative chanters of the day. In 1927, he invited an English music¬ 
ologist, Ernest Newlandsmith of Oxford and London Universities, to spend 
winters as his guest in a houseboat on the Nile with the sole obligation of 
listening to old native chanters and reducing their tunes to notation. New¬ 
landsmith compiled thirteen large folio volumes, and declared that the results 
exceeded his wildest expectations. Let us hear his final verdict, since we can 
do little more in a work of this nature. ‘What we understand today as 
Oriental music,’ he proclaimed, ‘appears simply a degradation of what was 
once a great art. This music, which has been handed down for untold centuries 
within the Coptic church, should be a bridge between East and West, and 
place a new idiom at the disposal of the Western musicians. It is a lofty, noble, 
and great art, especially in the element of the infinite which is lacking today.’ 
Newlandsmith is apparently of the opinion that, to use his own words, 
‘Western music has its origin in ancient Egypt.’ 1 

1 Quotations from The Morning Post , 22 April 1931. 


Whether or not this school is destined to gain future universal acceptance 
remains to be seen. However, it must be remembered that the whole Coptic 
service is vocal and choral; and the actors in that divine drama are the priest, 
the master chanter with his choir of deacons, and the congregation which 
plays a vital role in the responses, in contrast to the Greek and Roman tradi¬ 
tions. The fervour with which the performance of the Coptic liturgy is con¬ 
ducted rises to great spiritual heights, and its chanting is occasionally pervaded 
by unusual vigour. The vast range of Coptic hymns and offices for all seasons 
is impressive in richness and variety. 

Since its foundation in 1954, the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo has 
been sponsoring the registration on tape of the Coptic music notated by 
Newlandsmith. This has been accomplished by the oldest traditional chanters 
of a dying generation. Again according to the English musicologist: ‘Such a 
basis of music opens up a vista quite undreamt of by the ordinary musicians 
of the Western world.’ The moral of this rather unorthodox verdict from a 
western mind can only open the road to reconsideration and revision of the 
established views of the Byzantinist school in Coptic music in the light of the 
findings now in progress at the aforementioned institute. 

Coptic Literature 

Projects of a comprehensive history of Coptic literature have been recurring 
for almost a century and are still unfulfilled. 1 Plere our task will be limited to 
a matter of classification and the outlining of general trends in a fascinating 
field. We have already touched on salient facets of literature in the course of 
this brief survey of the march of events in Coptic annals. Of necessity, 
Coptic literature was born with the emergence of the Coptic language 2 and 
Coptic script from a happy compromise between Demotic, or the last phase 
in the evolution of ancient Egyptian, and the adoption of the archaic Greek 
alphabet in order to cope with the needs of daily life and the rendering of the 
new Christian Scripture. The debate as to when this system was accepted as a 
fait accotnpli may still be raging among specialists. But the fact remains that 
the earliest phase in Coptic literature as represented by Scriptural translation 
and the famous Gnostic texts must have occurred between the second and 
fourth centuries of our era. Coptic letters were necessarily, though not ex¬ 
clusively, religious in character. 

The struggle for pre-eminence among the five established dialects of 

1 R. de Rustafjaell, The 'Light of Egypt (London, 1909), pp. 100-38, contains an interest¬ 
ing chapter on Coptic MSS., with specimens of religious literature and good reproduc¬ 
tions from originals. 2 See above, Chapter 1. 


Coptic (Bohairic, Sahidic, Akhmimic, Faiyumic and Bashmuric) was fanned 
by localized interests in the various provinces of Egypt throughout the 
centuries. In fact, there were other dialectal sub-divisions such as sub-Akhml- 
mic, and some recent discoveries in the realm of ancient Coptic papyri 
indicate even the existence of other subsidiary dialects hitherto unknown and 
still undefined. On the whole, the two predominant dialects were the Sahidic 
and the Bohairic; and the struggle was eventually narrowed down to those 
two dialects. St Shenute the Great’s prolific literary output and his eloquence 
rendered the White Monastery a stronghold of Sahidic letters. In the mean¬ 
time, the Monastery of St Macarius the Great in Wadi al-Natrun near the 
Delta became the centre of a flourishing Bohairic literature. Here the factor 
of age could not be overlooked and, contrary to prevalent impressions, 
Bohairic must have pre-dated Sahidic owing to the fact that the adoption of 
the Greek alphabet by the Egyptians must have started in the Delta in the 
neighbourhood of Alexandria and other Lower Egyptian Greek urban centres 
rather than the remote terrains of Upper Egypt. But the truly decisive factor 
in the picture must be tied to patriarchal influence. Since the popes and 
patriarchs of the Coptic Church took to the habit of making the monastery of 
St Macarius their favoured quarters under early Arab rule, the Bohairic 
texts used there were eventually accepted as the official ones for general use 
in the Coptic Church toward the beginning of the eleventh century or perhaps 

The adoption of Bohairic as the official liturgical language of the whole 
church, however, did not eliminate the progress of Sahidic literature, which 
owed its efflorescence to the influence of the great Shenute and his successors 
from the fifth century. After Chalcedon, the nationalizing of Egypt swept 
off the vestiges of Greek from Sahidic offices. This was a purifying literary 
element not to be slighted. The Copts apparently had a preference for the 
forceful texts of the apocryphal Gospels and Acts, the violent tenor of the 
lives of their martyrs, and all manner of works of magic and miracle in 
their Sahidic sacred letters. It is still hard to assess the impact of that tre¬ 
mendous literature on the formative years of primitive Christianity. Yet some 
of the known samples in the field are impressive beyond description. The 
hair-raising account of St Paul’s descent into the abyss and his encounter 
with Judas Iscariot has been made popular by Worrell 1 in an English version 
of the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles Andrew and Paul. The Nag' Hamadi 
Gnostic papyri, discovered in 1946, have yielded some forty-four treatises, 
including such apocryphal Biblical literature as the Secret Book of John, 
and the Gospel to the Egyptians, otherwise known as the Sacred Book of the 
Invisible Grand Spirit, the Apocalypse of Paul, and the Apocalypse of James, 
the Acts of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and other 

1 A Short Account of the Copts , p. 21. 


mystifying material, all in the Coptic Museum. The Codex Jung, which 
found its way to Zurich, contains the famous Evangelism veritatis , a fourth- 
century version of a text ascribed to Valentinus, who might have written it 
while in Rome between 140 and 150 a.d . 1 

It begins thus: 2 

1 he Gospel of Truth is joy for those who have received the grace of 
knowing from the Father of Truth, Fhm through the power of the Verb 
come forth from the Pleroma who is immanent in the Thought and in 
the Mind of the Father who [and] who is Fie whom they call ‘The 
Saviour , for that is the name of the work which He is to accomplish 
for the Salvation of those who were ignorant of the Father, since this 
name . . . the Gospel is a revelation of Hope, since it is a discovery of 
Him. Indeed the All was searching for Flim from whom it came forth. 
But the All was inside of Him, that Incomprehensible, Inconceivable 
[one], who is superior to all thought. It was this ignorance concerning 
the Father which produced Anguish and Terror. And Anguish became 
dense like a mist, so that no one could see. For this reason. Error was 
strengthened. It elaborated its own matter in emptiness, without know¬ 
ing Truth . . . Oblivion did not exist close to the Father although It 
came into existence because of Him. On the contrary, that which comes 
into existence in Him is Knowledge [The Gnose], which appeared in 
order that Oblivion should be abolished in order that they might know 
the Father. 

The same trend of Gnostic thinking re-emerges in the Gospel according 
to Thomas: 3 ‘Jesus said: If those who lead you say to you: “See, the King¬ 
dom is in Heaven”, then the birds of the heaven will precede you. If they 
say to you: “It is in the sea”, then, the fish will precede you. But the Kingdom 
is within you and it is without you. If you [will] know yourselves, then you 
will be known and you will know that you are the sons of the Living Father. 
But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty and you are 
poverty/ This impressive language in its naivete seemed to have a tremen¬ 
dous appeal to the Egyptian mind, just emerging from idolatry, in its 
search for a religious haven. The same search also opened the same mind to 
the inroads of Manichaean thought during the third century. The Coptic 
Manichasan papyri discovered in 1930 in the Faiyum must be tied to the 

1 See above on Gnosticism under Chapter 2. 

2 Tivangelium I eritatis, ed. M. Malinine, H.-C. Pucch and G. Quispel (Zurich 1956), 
pp. 88-90. 

The Gospel According to Thomas, cd. A. Guillaumont, H.-C. Puech, G. Quispel, W. Till 
and Yassah f Abd al-MasIh (New York, 1959), pp. 2-3. 


refutation of Manichaeism in a fourth-century treatise by Serapion, bishop of 
Thmuis. 1 

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that the whole of Coptic 
literature was religious in character. The Coptic Chronicle of John of Nikiou 
was terminated with the advent of the Arabs in Egypt. Medical tests, con¬ 
fused with magical formulas, also survived the Coptic period. Business trans¬ 
actions and private letters are extant on papyrus as well as ostraca. In fact, the 
momentum of purely literary writing in Sahidic continued beyond the Arab 
invasion, and we find even then as late as the eighth century new Sahidic 
tales which enlisted Coptic nationalistic sentiments. Let us take the story of 
Theodosius and Dionysius. These were two Egyptians, one of whom had 
made his way to Byzantium and somehow risen to the imperial throne. 
Then he suddenly remembered his old colleague and caused him to be called 
to the capital, where he installed him as archbishop of Constantinople. 
Such wishful fiction bespoke nationalism. Another tale is the Cambyses 
romance which, though incomplete in the original and full of confusion in 
names and data, appears to underline the same trends as the former. Both 
stories are written in naive pseudo-biblical style, and both are of course in 
prose. 2 

Poetic literature, though somewhat rare in Coptic, nevertheless exists. 
One of the best examples is the story of Archellites and his mother, Synkle- 
tike, of which only two leaves have survived. Of Roman Christian origin, 
Archellites was sent by his wealthy widowed mother for an education over¬ 
seas at Athens or Beirut. He ended as a monk in the Convent of Apa Ro- 
manus, where he attained such sanctity that he performed the miracle of 
healing. His mother lost track of him and thought him dead. She used her 
great wealth in the establishment of a pious hostel for stray travellers. One 
day she overheard some merchants talking about a saint Archellites in the 
Convent of Apa Romanus who was endowed with the gift of healing. The 
mother recognized her son and at once went for a glimpse of him to cure her 
grief. Here the tragedy began. The saint had vowed never to set eyes on a 
woman, and he would never break his oath even for the supplications of his 
mother or the intercession of the archbishop. He thus prayed for death to 
keep his word before admitting his mother to his presence. On witnessing 
his face in death, the mother died too, and both were buried side by 
side. 3 

At that time, the intellectual life of the Arabs was almost at its zenith 
under the Abbasid caliphate. Baghdad was the great centre of world culture 
and all the subject nations looked up to it. In order to have some place in the 

1 Chauleur, p. 172. 

“Worrell, 31-4. For other stories, sec E. Amelineau, Contes et romans de V&Qpte 
chretienne, 2 vols. (Paris, 1888). 3 Worrell, pp. 37-43. 


new world regime, the Copts were fast learning and using Arabic, probably 
at the cost of Coptic. During the eleventh century a significant event took 
place. Bishop Athanasius of Qus 1 in the midst of the Thebaid found it fitting 
to compose the first grammar on record in Arabic for the Bohairic and 
Sahidic dialects of the Coptic language. This appeared to be a necessary 
measure for the preservation of Coptic among the natives. It was also in that 
century that Patriarch Christodoulos (1047-77), who moved the seat of the 
patriarchate from Alexandria to Cairo, also ruled that the official language 
of the Church should be Bohairic. This proved to be the final knell for 
Sahidic literary productivity. By the thirteenth century, Bohairic Coptic was 
the liturgical language, though most Copts remained bilingual in speech for 
some time yet. The great avalanche of Coptic grammars and lexicons in 
Arabic which saw the light at that time might provide strong testimony as to 
the need for them in order to preserve the old tongue among the natives. 
These authors have been reviewed elsewhere. 2 Most famous among them 
were Aulad [sons of] aMAssal. The last Coptic work of any importance to 
appear was the Triadon , 3 a fourteenth-century didactic poem in Sahidic pro¬ 
bably written by an unknown monk in praise of the Coptic language, which 
he considered to be a miracle even though its use was declining. It is to be 
noted, however, that the author accompanied his Coptic text with an Arabic 
version to make it comprehensible to his readers. Coptic literature became 
defunct, though Coptic has remained the language of the liturgy to our own 

From the later middle ages to modern times, the cultured Copt made his 
contribution to Arabic literature in Arabic, and it has become increasingly 
difficult nowadays to distinguish between writings which are of Coptic 
origin and others which are purely Islamic, except when it comes to works of 
a religious character. Although the Copt has retained his religious personality 
within the framework of his Church, his social and political integration in the 
body politic of the whole nation has reflected itself in the nature of his 
literary accomplishment, more especially in the contemporary period. In 
recent decades, we find Copts writing in every conceivable field on the 
same footing as their Muslim fellow-citizens without any distinction what¬ 
soever. Their Arabic poets, orators, political thinkers, jurisconsults, scien¬ 
tists, historians, journalists, and all manner of scholarly and literary writers 
have attained universal recognition side by side with their Muslim neigh¬ 
bours and colleagues in the Arab world. Even in their own communal and 

1 Worrell, p. 45; Graf, II, 445, refers to the same Athanasius, but docs not give a definite 
date, though he states that Abul-Barakat includes him in his thirteenth-century list of 
Coptic philologists. 

2 Sec above on Arab rule, Chapter 5. 

3 Worrell, p. 47. 


religious poetry, we find superior examples of forceful and artistic writing 
which has entitled the Coptic men of letters to a place in the sun. 1 

1 The subject of Coptic literature as a whole and more especially from the Arab period 
to our day has not yet been studied with sufficient care. The only comprehensive, though 
extremely modest, attempt to compile the Arabic phase of Coptic letters appeared at 
Cairo only in 1962 by a Muslim scholar, Muhammad Sayyid Kllani (. Al-Adab al-Qibti 
qadiman wa-badithan). Though this work must be regarded as only a beginning, and 
though we cannot agree with many of the author’s interpretations, he succeeded in 
assembling a variety of samples of original material which should leave us in no doubt 
about the heights attained by Coptic writers in the world of Arabic belles-lettres. 

Since this work was prepared, the first volume of a new book has appeared on Coptic 
history by Martiniano Roncaglia: Histoire de Veglise copte{V ol.I: Les origines du Cbristianisme 
en Lgypte, Du Judco-Cbristianisme an Cbristianisme hellenistique , I er et II e siecles ), Dar Al- 
Kalima (Lebanon), 1966. Other volumes arc planned as follows: 

Vol. II, U&gypte Chretienne , Le Didascalee: Les bommes et les doctrines ( III C s-44 1) 

Vol. Ill, Ueg/ise d'tigypte a la reeberebe de sa personnalitl ‘Copte' {441-642) 

Vol. IV, Coptes et musulmans (642-1801) 

Vol. V, Les coptes dans I'&gypte moderne et contemporaine ( 1801 - ) 

Vol. VI, Bibliographic, Index , Appendices et Additions. 



The modern Empire of Ethiopia, 1 situated west of the ‘Horn of Africa’ and 
the Red Sea, covers the enormous area of about 400,000 square miles of 
mountainous country sometimes rising to an altitude of 15,000 feet and des¬ 
cending into the lower plains of Eritrea, which has been one of its provinces 
since 1952. It has a population of approximately eighteen millions, of whom 
at least eight are Coptic Christian and eight are Muslim, the rest being a 
mixture of animistic pagans and primitive Africans on its southern periphery. 
The Christians form the governing class; they speak Amharic and are warlike 
by nature and upbringing. They represent an ethnic mixture of Semitic and 
African stocks, and are usually tall, with refined features, dark skin, and curled 
hair. Their proud character is matched by a deep sense of piety and attachment 
to their church. 

Ethiopia comprises thirteen provinces, each an episcopal diocese, with a 
total of thirteen rases, or kings and governors. In addition to the thirteen 
provincial prelates, there are eleven other metropolitan bishops. At the head 
of the state is the Emperor of Ethiopia - King of Kings, Lion of the tribe 
of Judah, supposedly a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of 
Sheba, who bore for him Menelik I in pre-Christian times. During the 
centuries, the capital of Ethiopia has kept moving in a southerly direction, 
but has remained always in the midst of the interior mountains. Axum, the 
first imperial and ecclesiastical metropolis, was replaced by Gondar, on the 
northern shore of Lake Tana, and this again was replaced by the present 

1 For general accounts of Ethiopian history, culture and church, see J. Doresse, 
Ethiopia , tr. Elsa Coult (London, 1956); A. II. M. Jones and Elizabeth Monroe, A History 
of Ethiopia (Oxford, 1935); LI. AI. Hyatt, The Church of Abyssinia (London, 1928); Delacy 
O Leary, The Ethiopian Church , Historical A otes on the Church of Abyssinia (London, 1936); 
J. S. Trimingham, Islam in Ethiopia (London, 1952); Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, A History 
of Ethiopia , 2 vols. (London, 1928); R. Strothmann, ‘Die Koptischen Metropoliten der 
abessinischeti Kirche’, in Theologische Blatter , IX (1930), 225—33. On the interesting subject 
of Ethiopic religious literature, see J. Guidi, Storia della litteratura etiopica (Rome, 1932); 
and J. M. Harden, An Introduction to Ethiopic Christian Literature (London, 1926). 



Addis Ababa, that is, ‘New Flower’, founded by Menelik II (1889-1913), 
surnamed the Great after the defeat of the Italians at the battle of Adowa in 
1896. Addis Ababa has almost a million inhabitants at present and is the 
seat of the emperor, the legislature, the centre of the United Nations Econo¬ 
mic Commission for Africa, a new and thriving state university, a theological 
seminary and the headquarters of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church 
with its new patriarch-catholicos Anba Basileus, the first native abuna of the 
Ethiopians. This is the land where the torch of Christianity was kept lighted 
in Africa without interruption throughout the centuries while in others it 
was either totally extinguished or engulfed in the surging sea of Islam, whose 
waves of invasion drowned the countries of the Middle East on both conti¬ 
nents of Asia and Africa. Nevertheless, the unswerving adherence of the 
Ethiopians to Coptic doctrine can be matched only by their inborn national 

Historical Background 

Any history of the Abyssinian Church must take into account the background 
of the political history of Ethiopia. It is often hard to separate the ecclesiasti¬ 
cal from the secular events in that country. We must at least attempt a simple 
enumeration of the main historical landmarks in order to be able to under¬ 
stand developments within the Church. However, owing to the very nature 
of Ethiopian history, which is still obscure and involved because of the 
shortage of its material, the danger of elaboration should be avoided. 

In ancient times, little is known about this area beyond the meagre details 
to be gleaned from the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut’s naval expedition to the 
land of Punt in eastern Africa about the year 15 20 b.c. Apparently the king¬ 
dom of Axum remained pagan until we next hear of the legendary bond of 
union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba 1 in the tenth century 
before Christ, giving rise to the apocryphal line of succession to the throne of 
Ethiopia from Solomon. This was the first contact between what might have 
been Ethiopia or Yemen and Judaistic monotheism. It was also on that 
occasion that the Ark of the Covenant is supposed to have been removed by 
the Queen’s retinue from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem to Axum, 
where it was treasured, though all archaeological evidence points to the sur¬ 
vival of paganism until the introduction of Christianity in the fourth century 
of our era. 

During the Christian era, Abyssinia emerges in first-century descriptions 
of the coasts of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, known as the ‘Periplus 

1 1 Kings x, 1—13. 

H e c— F 


of the Erithrean Sea’. It reappears in the fourth century in the Frumentius 
episode, and again in the sixth-century Christian Topography of Cosmas 
Indicopleustes. Hitherto, the primitive civilization of the kingdom was one 
of barbaric splendour where Christianity and paganism left their impressions. 
To that period belongs the erection at Axum of those gigantic monolithic 

obelisks, 1 whose purpose is still a mystery and a source of curiosity to the 

Prior to the coming of Islam, Ethiopia witnessed an expansion of the 
kingdom beyond the Red Sea into Yemen. The aim of the campaign under¬ 
taken by the Axumite Isdng Caleb was to chastise Dhu Nuwas, who per¬ 
secuted the Christians of Najran in 522 and installed the son of al-Harith 
(Aretha), the martyred tribal shai kh , on the throne of Himyar. 2 Tradition has 
it that an Ethiopian viceroy, Abraha al-Ashram, was preparing to attack 
Mecca almost on the eve of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, when the 
Arabs resorted to the Persians for help, those being the inveterate enemies of 
the Byzantines, who were Ethiopian allies. The Battle of the Elephant (al- 
Fll), mentioned in the Qur an, 3 took place and Ethiopian rule was ended in 
Yemen. These events show that pre-Islamic Arabs were acquainted with the 
kingdom of Ethiopia. During the early Quarayshite persecution of the fol¬ 
lowers of Muhammad, the Prophet advised them to flee to the court of 
Axum, where they would find ‘a king under whom no man is persecuted’ and 
where ‘God will bring you rest from your afflictions’. 4 

I Iere we enter one ot the darkest periods in Ethiopian history, when the 
line of kingship from Solomon was lost, and then restored towards the end 
of the thirteenth century by the extermination of the Zagwe dynasty. The 
lure of Ethiopian isolation in that era was associated with the Prester John 
tales of wonder and fabulous wealth which circulated throughout Christen¬ 
dom. To this obscure period, however, belongs the well-known series of 
ten rock-hewn churches of Iving Lalibela. These monumental structures are 
said to have been inspired by Coptic architects. Meanwhile, the return of the 
original kings of Judah was ascribed to the influence of one of the greatest 
saints of Ethiopian history, Tekla Haymanot, on whose account the new 
king, Yekuno-Amlak, granted the Church one-third of the kingdom in 

perpetuity, a fact which explains the great ecclesiastical wealth in Ethiopia to 
this day. 

During the next age, Ethiopia becomes better known through a native 

In size they surpass the known obelisks of Egypt. Jones and Monroe, p. 33. 

The Syriac sources of this episode are tne Book of the Himyantes (Lund, 1920—21) and 
a Letter of St Simeon of Beth Arsham {Analecta Symaca III, 235), and a Greek narrative 
entitled ‘Martyrdom of St Arethas’ (Migne, P.G., CXLVII, 301-4); cf. DeLacy O’Leary, 
Ethiopian Church , pp. 35-7; Doresse, Ethiopia , p. 86-8. 

3 Sura CV. J. S. Trimingham, Islam in Ethiopia , p. 41. 

4 Cf. Doresse, p. 88; Hitti, History of Arabs , p. 121. 


literary renaissance. Considerable translation of works from Coptic and 
Arabic included books on history, hagiography, homiletics and all manner 
of religious subjects. It was then that the famous universal History of John ot 
Nikiou was rendered into old Ge'ez. Original chronicals were compiled for 
the reigns of c Amda Seyon (1314-44) and Zara Yakob (1438). That was the 
age of the Crusade and Counter-Crusade, during which the Mamluk Sultans 
of Egypt abused the Copts and consequently aroused their Ethiopian co¬ 
religionists to relieve their distant brethren from increasing pressures. 
Whenever the news of fresh persecutions reached the Ethiopian monarch, he 
resorted to one or more of three retaliatory measures. First, he threatened to 
deflect the course of the Nile and turn Egypt into a desert. Secondly, he 
employed the means of negotiation and exchange of presents, as in the case 
of King David I, whose twenty-two camel-loads of gifts to Sultan Barquq 
appear to have been sufficiently conciliatory. Thirdly, in case of failure, he 
simply took severe reprisals against the Abyssinian Muslims, whom he 
regarded as hostages, and even expressed the intention to invade Egypt 
from the south, as in the reign of Zar r a Yakob 1 (1438-68). Relations with 
western Europe also became more frequent in that time. An envoy of King 
Weden Ar r ad (1299-1314) appeared at the papal curia of Clement V in 
Avignon, but the object of his mission is unknown. ZaFa Yakob appointed 
Nicodemus, prior of the Abyssinian Convent at Jerusalem, and another 
unnamed Ethiopian delegate to participate with Johannes, Coptic abbot of 
St Antony, in the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-9) in order to seek the 
peace of all churches and unity in the face of a common enemy. 2 The Abys¬ 
sinian chronicles do not refer to these representatives, but mention the 
advent of a Frank, perhaps the first Frank in history to enter Ethiopia. In the 
following reign, a Venetian artist named Nicholas Brancaleone resided and 
painted in Ethiopia for almost forty years. Idis painting of the infant Jesus 
resting on the left hand of the Virgin once caused an uproar from the Abys¬ 
sinian clergy, who considered it a grave sin to have the Lord on a lesser arm, 
and only the king could quell the ecclesiastical protests. 3 

The closing years of ZaFa Yakob’s reign witnessed the beginning of a 
mortal struggle with the Muslim neighbours, who defeated his successors 
and the fate of the empire was left in the balance. To save the situation, the 
hard-pressed monarchs asked the Portuguese to help them. This was the age 
of Portuguese exploration, and Prince Henry the Navigator seized upon 
the idea of using ‘Prester John’ to accomplish his Indian venture. Outside 
the Coptic Church and the advent of one abuna after another, the door of 
Ethiopia was for the first time set slightly ajar to foreign influence. One 

1 A. S. Atiya, The Crusade of Nicopolis (London, 1934), pp. 167-8 and n. 17. 

2 Idem, Crusade in Cater Middle -Ages, pp. 277-8. 

3 Jones and Munroe, p. 58. 


Portuguese embassy followed another. These were begun by Pedro de 
Cavilham and Alphonso Payo in 1490, who came by way of the Levant and 
the Red Sea; they were followed by the more formal embassy of Francis 
Alvarez in 1520, who journeyed from the Indies, since the route of the Cape 
of Good Hope had linked India directly with Portugal since 1498. These 
embassies were on the whole or little help, and sometimes even a burden to 
the suspicious Ethiopians. The Jesuits, a newly founded company, came 
with other missions for purely proselytizing purposes. They had some mea¬ 
sure of success under royal patronage as is demonstrated by the missions of 
Oviedo, Pxz and Mendez in 1557, 1595 and 1624 respectively. But this 
remained only an outward triumph without reaching the hearts of the people 
at all. 1 

At the time of the Portuguese mission, the Turks had occupied Yemen in 
1538, and their forces began to pour across the Red Sea on the African coast. 
Soon Muslim Harar became the centre of their reconnaissance against Ethio¬ 
pia, and the rise of the fearful Ahmad Gran wrecked the Portuguese garrison 
and defeated the Abyssinian forces, while the Gallas at the other end were 
pouring into the country. The damage done to the churches, monasteries 
and Ethiopian cultural treasures at the hands of the invaders was irreparable. 
Finally the Ethiopians had to fall back on their own resources for defence. 
Thanks to the rainy season, the nature of the physical configuration of the 
country, Ethiopian tenacity in guerilla warfare, and above all, the spirited 
leadership of a new young king in the person of Claudius, Ahmad Gran’s 
men were routed and he himself killed in 1542. 2 The war with the Muslims, 
though persisting on the eastern periphery of Ethiopia, never again assumed 
the dimensions of Gran’s ravages. 

Of the Portuguese mission, perhaps the only enduring outcome was the 
birth of Ethiopian studies in Europe. When Mendez assumed his shadowy 
patriarchal dignity with imperial approval, he inaugurated his reign with a 
pastoral visitation to Tigre, where two of his priests celebrated mass in an 
Ethiopian church and were found slain the following morning. Though this 
was a definitive sign of failure of the mission, Mendez had sent four Ethio¬ 
pians to Rome for indoctrination as a preliminary measure for planting 
Catholic doctrine amongst the natives by means of educating groups of 
preachers and future priests. The four natives were placed in the care of 
Job Ludolf, 3 a superior German scholar who was able in three years to 
learn both Amharic and the old Geez from his pupils. Ludolf further pre¬ 
pared a grammar, a lexicon and a history of Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, Mendez 

1 Idem, pp. 76 fl. 

2 Idem, pp. 83 ff.; Doresse, pp. 146-9; Trimingham, Islam in 'Ethiopia , pp. 85-91. 
Gran’s full name is Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (1506-43). The nickname Gran 
given him by the Abyssinians means ‘the left-handed’. 

3 DcLacy O’Leary, pp. 67-8. 


and his companions managed with difficulty to reach the port of Suakin and 
sail to Goa in 1636, and the Portuguese Jesuit mission came to an inglorious 
end. Louis XIV wished to renew the enterprise and by way of exploration 
despatched a French physician by the name of du Roule. He went to Sennar 
on the Sudanese border of Ethiopia and applied to Emperor Telda Hay- 
manot (1706-8) for an entry visa, but was dead before he received the 
imperial reply. 

Another era of complete isolation in Ethiopian history began. The 
intrigues, assassinations and local unrest during the next century are of little 
importance to this study. External concern for the Ethiopian empire came 
from the two neighbouring countries - the Sudan, now occupied by Egypt 
in the west, and Eritrea, in the hands of the Italians in the east. To settle 
their differences on the western border, the khedive sent the Coptic patriarch 
Cyril IV 1 on a peace mission, which he accomplished with difficulty on 
account of the suspicious nature of the Ethiopians. The Italians, on the other 
hand, under the delusion of building a colonialist empire in Africa, took to 
the risky road of their own defeat at Adowa 2 in 1896, which they were 
determined to vindicate when Mussolini pounced on the old and relatively 
defenceless empire with all his accumulated arms in 1935. The temporary 
occupation of the country by the Italians (1936-41) and its inglorious end in 
the course of the Second World War are chapters in contemporary history. 
Perhaps the staggering outcome of the war was the annexation of Eritrea by 
the empire and the recovery of the long-lost shores of Ethiopian access to the 
sea. More than any other Ethiopian monarch in history, Haile Selassie has 
worked to relieve his country of the dead-weight of conservative stagnation, 
to educate his people, and to cope with the forward march of modernizing 
influences, though without breaking away from time-honoured tradition. 3 
His task has only been partly accomplished owing to the nature of the Ethio¬ 
pians, whose love for their own way of life is proverbial. 

Church Origins and Development 

The historic origins of Ethiopian Christianity have already been outlined 
under the Coptic missionary enterprise. 4 This romantic episode was re¬ 
peated by most of the ancient ecclesiastical historians, 5 mainly on the authority 

1 Sec above. 

2 D. Mathew, 'Ethiopia , The Study of a Polity (ijjo-iyyy), (London, 1947), pp. 224-34. 

3 Doresse, pp. 201 ff.; Jones and Monroe, pp. 159 ff. 

4 See above. For the lives of Ethiopian saints, see E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the 
Saints of the Ethiopian Church , 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1928). 

5 l or example, Socrates (I, 19), Sozomenos (II, 24) and Thcodorct (I, 22); cf. Nicenc 
and Post-Nicene Fathers , Vol. II, pp. 23, 274 and III, 58. 


of Rufinus, 1 who is said to have recorded it from the mouth of Aedesius 
as an old man, long after his return from his joint Ethiopian adventure with 
his brother Frumentius. The Abyssinians would like to remind us of earlier 
Israelite and Christian Ethiopian traditions in spite of their legendary char¬ 
acter. The first apocryphal contact with monotheism goes back to Solomon’s 
marriage to the Queen of Sheba. Again, within sight of the ascension of our 
Lord, the somewhat mythical tale of St Matthew’s sermon to the Ethiopians, 2 
they contend, was the foundation-stone of the new faith in Abyssinia. 
Another story, from the Acts of the Apostles, 3 mentions that the Apostle 
Philip baptized £ a man from Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under 
Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and 
had come to Jerusalem for to worship’. In this way, it is assumed that the 
Axumite Church had its beginnings. Candace, however, was the title of the 
Meroitic queens of Nubia rather than those of Abyssinia, and the word 
'Ethiopian’ in the Semitic tongues signified one ‘dark-skinned’ (the Arabic 
Habashi) but not utterly black. The historic date of the Christianization of 
Ethiopia, on the other hand, has been fixed approximately as 340 a.d. 4 

The tradition of placing a Coptic monk from Egypt at the head of the 
Ethiopian Church started when Frumentius was consecrated for the new 
diocese by Athanasius the Great in Alexandria. He became Apa Salama , or 
Father of Peace, otherwise abuna - a word which means ‘Our Father’. This 
custom remained in force until the agreement of July 1948 liberated the 
Ethiopians from the bond of an Egyptian abuna , and the present Abyssinian 
patriarch-catholicos, Anba Basileus, was consecrated at Cairo on 28 June 
1 9 5 9 by Pope Cyril (Kirollos) VI in the presence of Emperor Flaile Selassie. 

The next event of consequence in Ethiopian church history was the in¬ 
troduction of monasticism in accordance with the rule of St Pachomius be¬ 
fore the end of the fifth century and within memory of the saint’s lifetime. 
Though individual monks came to Ethiopia from the Thebai'd at one time or 
other, the most important landmark in the propagation of both monasticism 
and Christianity was the advent of the Nine Saints 5 about the year 480 a.d. 
The central figure in the group was Apa Michael Aragawi, the founder of the 
famous monastery of Debra Damo on a Pachomian model at a forbidding 
height in the neighbourhood of Axum. Other monastic fathers include Apa 
Johannes, founder of the monastery of Debra Sina, and Apa Libanos, 
founder of Debra Libanos, later associated with the name of the national 

1 Migne, P.L., XXI, 478-80 (Hist. Ecc/es. I, 9); text trans. quoted Jones and Monroe, 
pp. 26-7, Rufinus mentions India instead of Ethiopia. 

2 Dorcsse, p. 62. 

3 VIII, 26-39. Reference is made to this story by Eusebius (II, 1), in Nicene and Post- 
Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, p. 105, nn. 30-31. 

4 Dorcsse, p. 62, places it between 341 and 346 a.d. 

8 Hyatt, pp. 31-32; Dorcsse, pp. 64-81. 


Abyssinian, St Tekla Iiaymanot, who was instrumental in bringing great 
wealth to his organization. Ethiopia did not lack mountainous sites, and the 
saints usually looked for the most inaccessible among them to ensure the 
seclusion of their brotherhood. 

To the influx of the highly lettered monks we owe the emergence of 
religious literature in translation from Coptic, Greek and Syriac into the old 
liturgical language of Ge r ez. Though Amharic has replaced it as a spoken 
language, GeYz is still the language of the liturgy in much the same way as 
Coptic in the Egyptian church. The Ge'ez Bible was completed between the 
fifth and seventh centuries, together with the Liturgy of St Cyril the Great 
and a few apocryphal books such as The Ascension of Isaiah. The number of 
churches multiplied with great rapidity throughout the country. 1 

The fifth century witnessed the Chalcedonian rift between East and West, 
and almost immediately Ethiopia declared its adherence to Coptic Mono- 
physitism. This period is also marked by the leadership which the Ethiopian 
Church demonstrated beyond its frontiers during the Yemenite wars in 
pre-Islamic Arabia. After the coming of Islam, the relations between the 
Ethiopian Christians and the Prophet Muhammad as well as his early caliphs 
appear to have been quite friendly. Hostility began later when the Arabs 
attempted to settle on the African shores of the Red Sea and the Indian 
Ocean. 2 With the spread of Islam in Ethiopia, it may be assumed that the 
Muslims remained in the lower plains while the Amharic Christians retired 
to the higher plateaus of the interior and grew more and more invincible and 
inaccessible. For six centuries, roughly from 650 to 1270, Ethiopia and the 
Abyssinian Church were shrouded in one of the darkest epochs of their his¬ 
tory. Practically all external relations were limited to the Copts of Egypt, and 
these almost ended with the consecration of one metropolitan abima after 
another, perhaps even with an occasional interregnum, where only the unen¬ 
lightened but natural piety of the Ethiopian helped in the survival of Chris¬ 
tianity in those isolated mountain fastnesses. The great monolithic rock 
churches of Lalibela (1190-1225) are impressive monuments of Abyssinian 
devotion of which the records are silent during that dark period. Only occa¬ 
sional reports of the fabled land of Prester John reached the outer world. 
Ethiopian delegates came to the Council of Ferrara-Florence 3 with their 
Coptic co-religionists and were an object of great interest and curiosity; but 
as has been noted, no positive results ensued from the undertaking, and only 
the Muslim peril which was menacing within the Ethiopian borders could 
again draw the Abyssinian Church toward the west. 

The conflict of Islam and Christianity during the Zagwe period in Abys¬ 
sinia had, however, been growing on account of the strengthening of 

1 Dorcssc, pp. 82 ff. 

2 Trimingham, Islam in 'Ethiopia , pp. 42 ff. 3 See above. 


Muslim infiltration. Muslims could be found in the Christian interior of the 
country. In Tigre an Islamic necropolis has been discovered with steke 
inscribed in Arabic, and bearing dates as early as 1006. A Muslim sultanate 
was established at the end of the ninth century under the Makhzumi dynasty 
in the district of Shoa. Alention of it continues in Arab sources until the 
year 1285, when it was succeeded by another called the Walashma from a 
neighbouring and more redoubtable state in the district of Ifat, all in the 
southeast of Ethiopia. 1 The Coptic sources 2 themselves confirm these facts. 

The struggle between Muslims and Christians in the interior smouldered 
until the great conquest of the sixteenth century, which was associated with 
its parallel on the sea between Ottoman 3 and Portuguese, and the Ethiopian 
monarch was constrained by Ahmad Gran’s ravages to solicit Portuguese 
support. The impact of this step on Ethiopian church history was colossal, 
since for the first time the Roman Catholic missionary came in the steps of 
the rather meagre Portuguese contingents. In reality, the legacy of the 
Islamic conquest with all its devastating effects in Ethiopia was ironically the 
coming of the Latin mission to the scene. By the year 1578, the Muslim 
period was ended, but the process of latinization in Ethiopia persisted until 
approximately the middle of the seventeenth century. 

The first real apostle of Latin Christianity in Ethiopia was Bermudez, who 
clamoured at the court of King Claudius for obedience to Rome, but the 
king retorted quietly by sending word to Gabriel, patriarch of Alexandria, 
for one bishop after another. Bermudez was incarcerated for months, then 
deported to Goa. The Society of Jesus had just been founded in 1558, and 
Ignatius Loyola pleaded with the reigning pope for permission to inaugurate 
his New Life with an Ethiopian mission. Though Ignatius himself was not 
allowed to go, the pope consecrated Nuaes Baretto as new patriarch of 
Ethiopia, with two suffragan bishops, Andrew Oviedo and Melchior Car- 
neiro. Only Oviedo reached Ethiopia. The others remained at Goa, where 
Baretto died in 1562. Oviedo promptly assumed the patriarchal dignity, and 
finding the Ethiopians averse to submission to Roman obedience, he re¬ 
quested the superior-general of the Jesuits to mediate with the papacy for 
Portuguese troops to be dispatched to impose his will on the Ethiopian 
people. The Portuguese Cardinal Don Henry acquiesced; but the curia 
wisely translated the impulsive Oviedo and his company from Ethiopia to 

1 It would be tedious to attempt a complete enumeration of the Muslim principalities 
within Ethiopia. Trimingham, pp. 62-3, mentions Adal, Mora, Hobat, Jidaya, Hadya, 
Fatajar, Dawaro, Bali and Mara extending from the interior to the east and south of the 
Ethiopian massif in the ETarar and Arusi territories. 

2 Sec, for instance, Abu Salih, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt , tr. B. T. A. Evctts 
(Oxford, 1895), p. 290. 

3 T he Ottomans inherited the legacy of the Indian maritime war with the Portuguese 
from the Egyptian Mamluks after the downfall of their last sultan Qansuh al-Ghauri in 


China and Japan in 1567. Oviedo died shortly afterwards at Fremona. His 
companions in the Jesuit mission followed him to the grave one after the 
other, Francesco Lopez being the last to be buried in 15 97. With his death the 
Jesuit mission ended in complete failure. 1 

It is interesting, however, to note that two more Jesuits, Pedro Vxz and 
Antonio de Monserrate, attempted to revive the Roman claim over Ethiopia. 
Shipwrecked on the Arabian coast, they were enslaved for seven years by 
the Arabs. The history of the mission becomes somewhat confused at this 
point. We read of a Maronite Jesuit sent by Dom Alexo de Menezes, arch¬ 
bishop of Goa, to pursue the work of proselytizing the Ethiopians, but he 
was intercepted and murdered at Massowah. Then we hear of Bishiop Jean- 
Baptiste, ordained by Pope Gregory XVIII and commissioned to confer 
with John XIV, patriarch of Alexandria, for reconciliation of the Copts. 
He failed in the task and proceeded further on the road to Ethiopia but met 
the same fate as the Maronite, also at Massowah. Meanwhile, the arch¬ 
bishop of Goa selected an Indian Brahmin convert to Catholicism, da Sylva 
by name, to revive the Jesuit cause in Ethiopia. A disguised Indian had a 
better chance in the Turkish and Arab realms, and he accordingly reached his 
destination in safety. In 1604 the Spanish Jesuit Pedro Pxz, who had obtained 
his freedom, joined the Indian missionary and managed to work his way 
amidst the conflicting local policies into the good graces of one of the 
ambitious Ethiopian princes, Jacob, or Za Dengel, who had seized the 
throne from Malak Sagad I. Jacob thought he could obtain military support 
from the pope and the Portuguese by feigning conversion to the Roman 
rite, and Vxz was his instrument. On the other hand, the bulk of the people 
remained immutably behind the Coptic abutia. The same politico-religious 
manoeuvre was regularly repeated until the autocratic Malak Sagad III took 
the whole matter in hand and summarily ordered obedience to Rome. 
Alphonso Mendez, consequently, was made patriarch of Ethiopia in 1624 
and, on reaching the country, became confirmed by the king while hastening 
to issue a sentence of formal excommunication against the Coptic abuna and 
all his followers. The Latin prelate then began his aforementioned patriarchal 
visitation to the province of Tigre with tragic consequences. Revolt broke 
out, and Mendez opened an inquisition in which he started burning the 
nationalists alive. Feeling in the country ran high, and even the emperor 
turned against the patriarch. Finally, the accession of Fasildas (Basilides) to 
the throne on his father’s death in 1632 tolled the knell of the Jesuit mission. 
The new king was a staunch supporter of the national church, and Mendez 
had to flee for his life. With only two survivors, he was able with difficulty to 
sail to Goa after having been plundered by the Turks. 

1 Dclacy O’Leary, pp. 60-7; Groves, Planting of Christianity in Africa , Vol. I, pp. 138 fT.; 
C. F. Rcy, The Romance of the Portuguese in Abyssinia (London, 1929), passim. 


I hough the bankruptcy of the Jesuit mission was self-evident, a group of 
Capuchins insisted on the resumption of the Roman venture and took the 
road to Abyssinia. I hey succeeded in reaching Axum, but on their arrival 
they were immediately seized by the Abyssinian authorities and condemned 
to death. All were hanged, and a ban was issued by the government against 
the entry of Roman Catholics into the country. Neither the zeal of Philip II 
of Spain for Catholicism nor even the weight of the French monarchy under 
Louis XIV could resuscitate the defunct cause for which the Jesuits stood, 
though the tenacity and determination of the Roman see persisted in its 
interest in Ethiopia. Thus in 1702, with the blessings of Pope Clement XI, 
three Franciscans reached Gondar and reported a somewhat doubtful sub¬ 
mission to Rome. In 1846, the country was divided into two zones of 
Roman influence: the vicariate of Abyssinia, headed by M. de Jacobus and 
the Lazarists, and that of the Galla, where the future Cardinal Guglielmo 
Massaia led the Capuchins. In 1904, quiet conversions took place in the 
Tigrc, Amhara and Gondar, which had half a dozen chapelsj but the harvest 
was greater amidst the pagan Gallas, where eighteen thousand turned to 
Rome and some twenty Catholic chapels were founded. In 1950, a native 
Ethiopian was consecrated by Rome as a titular bishop of Suzusa and com¬ 
bined with that dignity the title of ‘Apostolic Administrator for Catholics 
of the Ethiopian Rite’. 1 

In the nineteenth century, the Protestant missionaries Samuel Gobat and 
Christian Kugler were despatched to Ethiopia by the Church Missionary 
Society. By 1838 the mission had come to nothing, since Kugler died and 
Gobat was exiled. Protestant missions in those days were a mixed affair, 
and German, Polish, Swedish, French, British and Swiss names keep flicker¬ 
ing on the scene of events from the middle of the century without concrete 
results. The young theologians of the St Chrischona Institute in Basel are 
mentioned together with a western educated Abyssinian guide named Mader- 
akal, who later became Emperor Theodore’s interpreter. The Ethiopians 
tolerated the coming of the Protestants since they needed them as technicians 
and some were gunsmiths. Plowever, the British group under Stern was 
imprisoned after its arrival in i860, and it took Lord Napier’s expedition to 
regain freedom for them in 1868. They were expelled in due course. The 
American missionary emerged later in the century. He concentrated on 
medical service at the new capital of Addis Ababa and in the midst of the 
Galla tribes. 2 

It must be stated, however, that in principle neither the Coptic abuna nor 
the Ethiopian people nor even the imperial court favoured the missionary 

1 Groves, IV, op. cit., 305. 

2 Hyatt, pp. 41-3; Groves, IV, 305 fT.; J. Richter, A History of Protestant Missions in 
the Near East (Edinburgh and London, 1910), pp. 371-90. 


who was regarded with great suspicion. Ecclesiastically, Ethiopia has been 
impervious to foreign influence, and the suspicious nationalism of the 
Abyssinians has demonstrated itself of late in claiming the right to their own 
native archbishop and bishops. In 1959* the Ethiopian Church won its first 
native abuna in the person of Anba Basileos, catholicos-patriarch of all 
Ethiopia, who has his own native suffragan bishops. At present the empire 
has twenty-two bishops, one for each of the thirteen provinces and others 
in the cities and monasteries, especially the long-disputed Dair al-Sultan in 
Jerusalem. It is here, and not in matters of doctrine, that the rift has widened 
between the Copts and the Ethiopians, who claim a footing on that holy 
soil in the neighbourhood of the Holy Sepulchre. I he grant of Dair al- 
Sultan dates from the reign of Saladin, after his conquest of Jerusalem in 
1187, when he allowed the Eastern Christians to re-enter the Holy City 
from which the Latin Crusader kingdom had banned them as schismatics. 
The tendency in Ethiopia at present is one of personal but not doctrinal 
independence from the Copts. Their clerical college for religious instruction 
of future priests, formerly headed by a Coptic ecclesiastic, has been ceded to 
a Malabarese priest or scholar from the Syrian Orthodox Church of St 
Thomas, who acts as principal. Nevertheless the ties with the Coptic Church 
are cherished by the Ethiopians, who send their promising young scholars to 
both the Coptic Theological College and the Institute of Coptic Studies in 
Cairo. The recent visit of the Coptic Pope Cyril (Kirollos) VI to the Empire 
of Ethiopia has been a demonstration of the strength of the enduring links 
which have bound the Coptic mother Church of Alexandria to its daughter 

Church of Ethiopia. 

Ethiopian Faith and Culture 

In matters of dogma and doctrine the Ethiopians have faithfully adhered 
to the Alexandrine teachings of the Coptic Church. A survey of Ethiopian 
ecclesiastical usage would therefore be somewhat redundant. The salient 
features of Ethiopian faith - Monophysitism, church order, eschatology, 
biblical and hagiographical literature, liturgies, and even their monastic 
rule - stem from Coptic origins. Nevertheless, it would be a grave error 
to describe the Ethiopian Church as a mere replica of the Coptic Church. 
The native traditions, whether Jewish or pagan, have given the Ethiopian 
Church a distinct colour of its own, and here will be mentioned the main 
variants which give that church its own special personality. 

1 G. A. Lipsky, Ethiopia - its people , its society , its culture (New Haven, 1962), pp. 100 ff.; 
Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethiopia , A Cultural History (Woodford Green, Essex, 1955), pp. hi E; 


Without unduly exaggerating the Jewish influences in the country, it 
ma y be noted that the Ethiopians observe the Sabbath on Saturday, practice 
male circumcision, and shun numerous items of food as unclean - all of 
which are customs of Judaic origin. Judaism in Ethiopia is still represented 
by the powerful Falasha tribe, whose advent presumably antedates Chris¬ 
tianity. Tradition tells us that an Israelite tribe accompanied the infant 
Menelik I in the reign of the Queen of Sheba. The famous dance of the 
dabteras with their T-shaped crutch or staff in the left hand and the jingling 
sistrum 1 or rattle in the right during religious processions on certain days is 
said to be an ancient custom inherited by the Ethiopians from the Levites, 
who danced before the Ark inside Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. How¬ 
ever, the T-shaped crutch was used by the Antonian monks in Egypt during 
their long prayers, while the sistrum was employed by the priests of the 
Egyptian goddess Isis in pre-Christian times. The accompaniment of the 
drum for keeping the rhythm is another usage which can be traced only to 
pagan African origins. The dabteras , often mistaken for priests, are unor¬ 
dained chanters and psalmists, without whose participation a church service 
cannot be celebrated. They are also known as church scribes, and they hold a 
place in Ethiopian folklore as the writers of popular charms for guarding 
bearers against demons and for healing the sick. 2 

Their church music, far from being of modern creation, is ascribed to a 
sixth-century deacon named Yared, who, according to a native legend, 
heard it from a chorus of angels in heaven and immediately recorded it for 
his countrymen. Eike the Copts, who still use ancient Coptic liturgies, the 
Ethiopians read their services in the old Ge P ez instead of the "modern 
Amharic language. This imposes considerable rigorous training on their 
priests before ordination. The church order and canon law are in the main 
those of the Coptic Church, with a few additional elements. On the other 
hand, the Coptic Church has no dabteras , and one of the high offices peculiar 
to the Ethiopian Chutch is that of the echage , who has no equivalent among 
the present-day Copts, though his position could be identified with that of 
superior-general in the early Pachomian monasteries. The echage* is regarded 
as the head of all Abyssinian monastic brotherhoods, and he is customarily 
the abbot of Debra Libanos, the true successor of the great Tekla Hay- 
manot. As the leader of a powerful army of monastic communities and the 

Doressc, Ethiopia , pp. 205 ff. See also pamphlet prepared by Ethiopian delegation for 
distribution to members of the World Council of Churches in the session of 1954 held at 
Evanston, Ill., and written by Iv. At. Simon, The Ethiopian Orthodox Church , and giving a 
summary of the official church views (pp. 24). 

1 See illustration in Hyatt, p. 135. I he sistrum was used in the mystical music at the 
worship of Isis and mentioned by Ovid; cf. ibid., p. 145. 

2 Hyatt, p. 59. 

3 Ibid., pp. 50-1. 


dispenser of vast monastic property, he ranks next to the abuna in the 

Ethiopian prelates must receive imperial sanction before their preferment. 
The Church and empire are the true sources of power and authority as well 
as national culture in Ethiopia. They are not unlike the two swords, the 
spiritual and the temporal, in European mediaeval thought. Until recent 
times, in one of his pronouncements, the emperor, as defender of the faith, 
declared that the Church was like a sword and the imperial government like 
an arm, and thus c the sword cannot cut by itself without the use of the arm’. 1 
Both institutions are clothed in a garb of awe, and are universally respected 
and feared. 

It may be of interest here to note the enormous size of the clerical pro¬ 
fession as a special class. The travellers’ assertion that Abyssinia has more 
churches than any other part of Christendom is perhaps an exaggeration. 2 
However, the country is estimated to have about 20,000 churches. Some 
villages have more than one church, and each of them must have two or¬ 
dained priests in addition to numerous dabteras and deacons. On this assump¬ 
tion, the number of ecclesiastics throughout Ethiopia has been estimated at 
approximately twenty-five per cent of the whole male Christian population. 
The priest is a principal personality in his congregation, and his offices 
extend from the church to the homes of his flock, indeed to every phase of 
individual and family life from birth to death. The strength of Ethiopian 
piety is demonstrated, not merely by profound deference toward the priest¬ 
hood and by the resounding religious processions to the awesome beat of 
the great drums, but more particularly in the strict observance of the sacra¬ 
ments and the long seasons of fasting, which amount to some 250 days every 
year. Besides abstaining from meat and all forms of animal products in their 
meals, the devout Ethiopians usually refrain from touching food before the 
third hour of the afternoon on fast days, except Saturdays and Sundays. As a 
mark of adherence to the faith, young girls often tattoo themselves with the 
Cross on the forehead. Education starts amongst the younger generation as a 
church affair, since the traditional elementary school is an adjunct to the 
village church. Besides reading and arithmetic, the central theme in education 
consists mainly of the Psalms of David, the praises of Jesus and the Virgin 
Mary and a series of closely knit prayers 3 in the old Ge c ez. 

In ecclesiastical architecture, although the original basilica or rectangular 
and cruciform styles have been preserved in a multitude of ancient churches, 
the Ethiopians have developed their own peculiar octagonal or round chur¬ 
ches, which may have been inspired by their conception of the Temple of 

1 Cf. Lipsky, p. 101. 

2 Hyatt, p. 109. Alvarez records that the Portuguese were stunned when they were met 

on their arrival by a procession of 20,000 clerics preceded by mitred prelates carrying gold 
Crosses; cf. Doresse, p. 207. 3 Pankhurst, pp. 234 ff.; Lipsky, pp. 107 ff. 


Solomon in Jerusalem. On the other hand, it has been asserted that this may 
have been purely a reproduction of the customary southern Ethiopian 
habitation, which was circular. 

The oldest Ethiopian church is of course the Cathedral of Axum, dedicated 
to Our Lady of Zion, in whose sanctuary the Mosaic Ark is enshrined and 
where the imperial coronation takes place. Though the church itself has 
been burnt to the ground many times and its present structure dates only 
from 1854, the ancient rectangular form of its building has been preserved. 
Erected on a raised platform with an impressive fagade, three main entrances, 
some side chapels and a forbidden sanctuary, the Cathedral is lavishly decora¬ 
ted with paintings from biblical scenes in the traditional Ethiopian style in 
which the artist has concentrated on the theme and the bright colour rather 
than the proportion. The central objects are the coming of the Ark, the Virgin 
and the Infant Jesus, St George and the Dragon, and a pictorial record of the 
Nine Saints. As a rule, paintings were made on canvas which was then pasted 
to the walls, in accordance with Abyssinian artistic techniques. During the 
succession of invasions, the emperors craftily concealed the treasured Ark, or 
Tabof, and later reinstated it. Since no one is allowed within the Holy of 
Holies, the Ark and its contents have never been described in an official 
Christian source. But we are told by the Muslim chroniclers that the hidden 
treasure is a large white stone inlaid with gold. 1 Although all Ethiopian 
churches are normally open to both sexes, the Cathedral of Axum is an 
exception, since women are not permitted to set foot on its floor. This rule 
dates from the time when a former empress is said to have desecrated the 

The more familiar form of the Ethiopian church is either octagonal or 
circular. The countryside is spotted with, such churches, usually built 
on an elevation and with thatched roofs. Invariably, they consist of three 
concentric rings; a square sanctuary is situated in the middle of the circle 
and is screened. This is followed by an area reserved for the choir and those 
receiving Holy Communion, while the rest of the congregation stands in the 
outer ring, always barefooted on the floor covered with matting. Men and 
women are separated by partitions. Priests circulate in their midst while 
praying, blessing and swinging their censers until the interior is filled with 
clouds of incense. The interior is decorated with wall paintings and the usual 
icons. 2 

The third type of Ethiopian church is the historic rock-hewn group 
founded by the pious monarch Lalibela (1181-1221), of the Zagwe dynasty. 
Because of their monolithic character, architectural skill, massive dimensions, 
carefully carved colonnades, arcades and vaulted ceilings, these churches are 
considered by archaeologists to rank amongst the finest achievements in 

1 Dorcssc, p. 206. 

2 Pankhurst, pp. 167 ff.; Lipsky, p. 109. 


ecclesiastical architecture of any age throughout Christendom. Apparently 
King Lalibela re-established a firmer relationship with Egypt and undertook 
a pilgrimage to the Holy Places. He was thus able to invite skilled Coptic 
and Syrian architects to come to Ethiopia to help in this monumental pro¬ 
ject. The Lalibela churches, eleven in number, possess the general air of 
ancient Egyptian temples. They form three groups with intercommunication 
at varying levels by trenches and subterranean tunnels, which are engineering 
feats of no mean stature. In fact, the Lalibela churches have often been com¬ 
pared in their grandeur to the rock-hewn temples of Abu Simbel in Nubia, 
of Petra in Jordan, and of Ellora in the Indian state of Hyderabad - all 
monuments of singular exotic beauty. Though carved from the live rock in 
the mountain side, these monolithic structures were detached from the body 
of the mountain by excavating deep trenches around each of them. After 
separating the massive rock formation from the surrounding fastness by that 
deep trench, the exterior of each church was fashioned in a manner to give 
the impression of buttressed walls with bays and colonnades. The roof was 
gabled or carved flat, cruciform or simple, invariably with an attractive 
cornice. Afterwards, the craftsmen set themselves to hollow the interior 
and to design extraordinary forms of architecture which could never have 
been accomplished by normal building processes and techniques. Some 
churches had three naves, others five, with rows of impressive columns and 
capitals. Arches, windows, niches, colossal crosses and swastikas in bas- 
relief and haut-relief, decorative rock mouldings and friezes of geometrical 
shapes, apses and domes - all these and other features have truly rendered the 
Lalibela churches enduring monuments of Christian architecture in the 
heart of the African continent. 1 

Monastic architecture, too, deserves at least some notice here. The 
Ethiopian monastic system follows rather closely the Coptic. While the latter 
aimed at the wilderness of the eastern and western deserts, the Ethiopians 
established their cenobia in the complete seclusion of mountain peaks. 
Illustrative of the fact is Debra Damo, 2 a monastery built probably as early 
as the seventh century by Emperor Gabra Maskal and still standing atop a 
plateau, or rather mountain peak, accessible only by means of the rope. 
After building it, the emperor ordered the connecting staircase to be de¬ 
molished. The centre of the monastery is occupied by a church that is a 

1 The latest and most impressive work on the rock-hewn churches is sumptuously 
published with colour plates and detailed plans by Imgard Bidder, Lalibela , The Monolithic 
Churches of Ethiopia (Cologne, 1958). All works on Ethiopian history and culture devote 
space to this subject. Pankhurst, pp. 151 ff.; Hyatt, pp. no ff.; Dorcsse, pp. 93 ff.; T. 
Pakenham, The Mountains of Rasselas (New York, 1959), pp. 171-6. The last is only a 
travel account. Other works on these interesting churches include A. A. Monti della 
Corte, Lalibela , le chiese ipogee e monolitiche (Rome, 1940); A. llaffray, Les eglises ??ionolithes 
de la ville de Lalibela (Paris, 1882). 

2 Pakenham, pp. 78-90. 


jewel of Abyssinian ecclesiastical architecture. 1 Its stone and wood carving is 
exquisite. The panels of animal haut-relief and the geometrical friezes are 
reminiscent of specimens to be found in early Coptic art. Its mural structure 
has the obelisk patterns of Axum. The use of massive wooden beams and 
stone in alternating horizontal tiers lends an unusual charm to its outward 
appearance. Round the church, the monastic cells spread out in greater inti¬ 
macy than in most other monasteries. As a rule, Ethiopian monasticism is 
marked by severe austerity and a tendency toward eremitism. 

Another notable type of Ethiopian mediaeval ecclesiastical architecture is 
the cave church pattern. Of this type, the most famous examples are Imrahan- 
na Kristos and Jammadu Mariam. The first was built inside a tremendous 
cave in the Lasta Mountains by the Emperor who imparted his name to it 
after deciding to retire from the throne to monasticism. He died and was 
buried in that church about the middle of the twelfth century. The second 
was built by Emperor Yekuno-Amlak about 1268, also in the Lasta Moun¬ 
tains, to commemorate the restoration of the line of Solomon with the sup¬ 
port of the great saint, Tekla Haymanot. 2 

All these and other similar monuments were probably built by anonymous 
monastic architects as an act of faith. Perhaps a better known contribution 
of the Ethiopian monks lies in their formidable manuscript heritage. Un¬ 
doubtedly the followers of St Pachomius, of whom the Nine Saints were the 
most eminent disciples of Ethiopian monachism, carried with them the 
teachings of their superior, who insisted on education and manual labour 
side by side for a healthy life of the monks under his rule. It was in this way 
that many Abyssinian cenobites became accomplished copyists. Others de¬ 
veloped the art of the miniature, and their illustrations of Ge r ez codices 
reached a degree of perfection that places their work on an equal footing 
with the similar great arts of other lands. 

Ethiopian literature 3 in the old GeYz seems to have arisen simultaneously 

1 For description and plan of the church, see Pankhurst, pp. 141-5. 

2 Ibid., pp. 146-9. 

3 Pankhurst, pp. 177 ff.; Hyatt, pp. 243 ff.; Doresse, pp. 217 ff.; Lipsky, pp. 121-35. 
Comprehensive works on literature are few. See J. M. Harden, An Introduction to Ethiopic 
Christian Eiterature (London and New York, 1926); E. Littmann, Gescbichte der athiopischen 
Litteratur (Leipzig, 1907); J. Guidi, Storiadella Litteratura Etiopica (Rome, 1932). On the sub¬ 
ject of Ethiopic liturgies see A. B. Mercer, The Ethiopian Liturgy - Its development and Forms 
(Milwaukee and London, 1915). A complete tr. into English and Arabic of the fourteen 
Ethiopian Anaphoras has been made by a Coptic priest Father Marcos Daoud and revised 
by Blatta Marsie Hazen under the title of The Liturgy of the Ethiopian Church (Cairo, 1959). 

It would be interesting to enumerate those anaphoras which include some from ancient 
Coptic sources now unknown to the Copts: (1) Anaphora of the Apostles; (2) Anaphora 
of the Lord; (3) Anaphora of John, Son of Thunder; (4) Anaphora of Holy Mary; (5) 
Anaphora of the Three Hundred [Bishops at Nicsea, more correctly 318]; (6) Anaphora 
of St. Athanasius; (7) Anaphora of St Basil; (8) Anaphora of St Gregory; (9) Anaphora 
of St Epiphaneus; (10) Anaphora of St John Chrysostom; (11) Anaphora of St Cyril; 


with the introduction of Christianity into the Axumite kingdom. At some un¬ 
known date around the dawn of modern history it gradually fell into disuse 
and was replaced by the more recent Amharic style, though the conservative 
Ethiopian has hitherto retained Ge r ez as the liturgical language of the church. 
The original Ge r ez literature was pre-eminently biblical and religious. Its gen¬ 
eral substance was translated from Coptic, Syriac, some Greek and at a later 
date from Arabic. The Ethiopic Bible contains the major Apocrypha; and 
the liturgies, besides the standard Coptic Gregorian, Basilian and Cyrillian 
texts, preserved others that have since disappeared in Egypt and still others 
of purely Abyssinian origin. Though the Ge r ez Bible is said to have been 
started by Frumentius, the surest data point to the age of the Nine Saints, 
toward the end of the fifth century, as that of the rendering of the earliest 
biblical books for the Ethiopians. The golden age of the Ge r ez letters is 
coterminous with the great awakening associated with the restoration of 
Solomon’s line of succession in 1270, though it is very difficult to construct a 
complete picture of the literary and artistic excellence of mediaeval Ethiopia. 
The reason for this obscurity is the destructive Islamic invasion of the six¬ 
teenth century, when Ahmad Gran systematically desecrated Ethiopian 
churches. He left them in ruins after looting their treasure and putting every 
available ancient codex to the flame. Ethiopia has never fully recovered from 
the barbarous descent of the Turks on its cultural heritage. Had it not been 
for the physical inaccessibility of some churches and monasteries, the world 
might have completely lost contact with that glorious literature. More oppor¬ 
tunities may still be offered by further discoveries in the twenty island 
monasteries in the waters of Lake Tana, though numerous manuscripts have 
already found their way to European repositories. 1 

The Ethiopian scribe used vellum or parchment in the redaction of his 
codices. The binding was either simple wooden boards or embossed leather. 
A treasured Gospel, Bible or Psalter was carefully encased in a leather con¬ 
tainer with a strap so that it could be carried around the shoulder. Apart from 
the predominant religious literature - biblical, liturgical and hagiographical 
treatises, mainly derived from the Coptic Synaxarium, or Lives of the Saints - 
the Ethiopians developed a marginal, quasi-religious and secular set of 

(12) Anaphora of St John of Serough; (13) Anaphora of St Dioscorus; (14) Anaphora of 
St Gregory II. 

1 The strongest Ethiopic manuscript collections appear to be 688 in Poland (1952), 
500 in the British Museum (1928), 170 in the Bibliotheque Nationale (1877) with later 
expansions, and about 100 in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (1951); cf. Pankhurst, 
pp. 88-90. It would be interesting to estimate the Italian acquisitions after the Ethiopian 
conquest, which came to an end in May 1941. A. Dillman catalogued 82 MSS. in the 
British Museum in 1847, an d these were supplemented by 408 by William Wright in 1877. 
Of these, at least 122 are biblical and apocryphal. With the exception of 32 secular treatises, 
the rest of the codices are on religious matters. 

164 • the ETHIOPIANS 

writings covering various fields. These comprised law, which was essentially 
canon law derived from the Coptic Didascallia, history, some Greek science, 
magic and quack medicine, and tales of Abyssinian folklore. 1 The Kebra 
Nagast (Glory of Kings) is the outstanding native classic, where the legend 
of the Queen of Sheba’s betrothal to King Solomon and the birth of Menelik 
I is still cherished by the Ethiopian people. The Physiologus , from the Greek, 
is a natural history. A multitude of chronicles have survived, together with a 
translation of John of Nikiou from Coptic and the Historia Saracenica of ibn 
al-Makln 2 3 from Arabic. The Story of Barlaam and Yeivasef as well as the 
Romance of Alexander 3 have enjoyed a special place in Abyssinian belles- 
lettres, to be surpassed only by the prolific literature on the Virgin Mary. 4 
Like the Copts, whose deeply seated affection for the Virgin may have been a 
continuation of their pre-Christian intense regard for Isis, the Ethiopians 
have inherited Coptic mariolatry and accentuated it even beyond the parent 

A fine Ethiopian school of painting has evolved from the illustrative 
miniatures with which their artists decked the majority of the aforementioned 
classics. Radiant colours, including red, azure, gold and some brown, pre¬ 
dominate in the Abyssinian miniature. The faces of the blessed and the holy 
are painted in full and are invariably in light colour, while the unholy appear 
in dark profile. Though the native artist displayed no sense of perspective, 
his work was full of vigour. To him a painting was the representation of a 
given theme, and this he managed to accomplish in primitive purity and 
without affectation. On the whole, Ethiopian art imparts a feeling of 
originality and freshness which, in spite of its modest qualities, assures it of 
some place in the general framework of the religious arts. 

The Ethiopians have retained the elaborate paraphernalia demonstrated in 
the scenes of their older paintings, as may be witnessed to this day in their 
religious functions. The richly embroidered vestments of the clergy, the 
colourful ceremonial umbrellas, the gold or silver gilt crosses, the jewelled 
implements of the liturgy, the sistrum, staff, censer, and a multitude of other 

1 Abyssinian folklore is essentially preserved in Amharic. See R. Davis and B. Asha- 
branner, The Lion's Whiskers , Tales of High Africa (Boston and Toronto, 1959). 

2 See above. 

3 The Ethiopian Alexander is represented as a saint and Philip his father as a martyr. 
Sir E. A Wallis Budge, ed., The Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great , Ethiopic text 
and English tr. and notes, 2 vols. (1896); cf. Pankhurst, pp. 218-31. 

4 Pankhurst, pp. 192-200. The Lady Meux Ethiopic MSS., purchased in a Quaritch 
sale in 1897, were first acquired by a British officer during the Magdala Expedition of 
1867. They are profusely illustrated with some of the most magnificent specimens of the 
Ethiopic miniature in bright colours. The collection has been sumptuously edited by 
Sir E. A. Wallis Budge and includes Legends of Our Lady Mary , the Perpetual Virgin (Lon¬ 
don, 1900) as well as The History of Hanna , the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the 
Lives of Maba Sion and Gabra Chrestos (London, 1899). 


items render their services or processions picturesque events which are fur¬ 
ther dramatized by the exotic dancing of the dabteras , the rhythmic hand¬ 
clapping of the congregation to the exciting beat of the great drums. 1 The 
priests are dressed in white in daily life, and only the shama , thrown over 
their shoulders, has an embroidered edge of subdued colours. Their turbans 
are also white, unlike those of the bishops, whose robes are identical with 
those of their Coptic peers in Egypt - that is, entirely black. When officiating, 
however, the Ethiopian bishop uses a snow-white silk turban decorated with 
crosses in gold thread, whereas the Copt wears the mitre or a jewelled crown. 

In matters of faith and culture, the Ethiopians as a whole have retained the 
older piety and the Church its traditional conservatism. Contacts with the 
foreign missionary have always been overshadowed by fear and suspicion of 
his real motives. Even with the Copts, their lifelong companions since 
antiquity, they seem to have grown impatient. The departure from former 
obedience to a Coptic abuna , the consecration of their own native bishops and 
the establishment of a local native synod for Ethiopia are modern nationalist 
trends which the pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the see of St Mark 
honoured with all the concessions which left no room for doctrinal aber¬ 
rations or dogmatic cleavage between the two great native churches of 

In the meantime, the survival of the ancient scenes and habits, at times 
within hearing distance of the roaring of lions and whining of hyenas, at 
others in the neighbourhood of thundering jet planes, has brought both the 
Ethiopian Church and the Ethiopian society of a bygone era face to face with 
the stark realities of a new and changing world. This is the great challenge 
with which both Church and empire must cope. The country has taken con¬ 
siderable strides in religious and secular education as a solution to the prob¬ 
lems of progress, but much still remains to be done. The ways of reform are 
indeed multiple, and the Church needs all of them. After its newly acquired 
hierarchical independence, and with its presumably legendary wealth, the 
Church is expected by many Ethiopians to share more actively in the 
realization of national aspirations. In spite of the limitations imposed upon 
the religious activity of foreign missionaries, 2 both Protestant and Roman 
Catholic, their very existence within the country has aroused the request of 
the Ethiopian youth for ecclesiastical reform. It is difficult as yet to estimate 
the impact of those foreign elements on the native church. In Egypt, as has 

1 A fine photographic record of Ethiopian church and monastic life and religious 
ceremonial has appeared in no. 225 of Vivante Afrique (Paris, March-April 1963). The 
photographs are unequalled, but the text of the explanatory remarks, though sympathetic 
with Ethiopian Christians, is critical of Ethiopian and Coptic Christianity and strongly 
leans towards purely Roman Catholic propaganda. 

2 The missionary activities are regulated by special decree no. 3 (27 August 1944), which 
narrows them down to medical and educational services. Groves, IV, 249; Lipsky, p. 120. 


already been said, the Church owed the first sparks of its awakening to the 
missionary. Perhaps the day is not far when the same episode will repeat 
itself in Ethiopia. The Church is slowly coming out of its isolation, and one 
of the signs of this new trend is its enrolment in the universal family of the 
World Council of Churches, where it was represented by Anba Theophilus, 
archbishop of Harar, and a few younger Ethiopians. The same prelate conse¬ 
crated an Ethiopian branch of the Church in America in December 1959. 
But its real function has remained nearer home where, as the truly Christian 
outpost in the African continent, it has established a more effective branch in 
Trinidad. The present emperor has encouraged the translation of the Bible 
into the more intelligible Amharic 1 and despatched more theological scholars 
to Coptic institutions in Egypt. The Theological College at Addis Ababa, 
founded towards the end of 1944, has been enlarged under government 
auspices. More than a thousand students are said to attend its classes, and the 
Church seems to have expanded its educational service to some 100,000 boys 
throughout the country, according to a census of i960. 2 Progress has been 
made, and there is no doubt that dawn is breaking on the Ethiopian horizon. 
But a great deal of adjustment and labour are still necessary to bring this 
ancient and august Church into line with the swift pace of modern develop¬ 

1 This translation was done at the initiative of Emperor Haile Selassie. Before the issue 
of an authorized version in Amharic, other versions by both the Protestant and Catholic 
missionaries had been in use, but none were recognized by the Ethiopian Church author¬ 
ities (Pankhurst, pp. 282-3). Amharic has been declared by Article 126 of the Constitution 
of 4 November 1955 as the state language. The same Constitution devotes Articles 127, 
128 and 129 to the organization of the Church. Article 10 enacts that the head of the 
Church should be in the Regency Council. Zahir Riad, The Ethiopian Constitution (in 
Arabic), pp. 19-41. 

2 Ibid., pp. 98, 112. According to Zahir Riad (Church of Alexandria in Africa , p. 132, 
in Arabic), the year of its founding was 1941-2 and it was completely from the private 
imperial coffers, with 200 students increasing to 600 in 1961. 




Historical Setting 

The setting of the city of Antioch undoubtedly gave it a special place in the 
early annals of the rise of the Christian faith. Accordingly, the Church of 
Antioch, long in exile, proved to be one of the central and dynamic forces in 
the formative centuries of primitive Christianity; indeed a worthy peer to the 
great ancient sees of Alexandria and Rome. Favoured by a fine geographical 
position in the valley of the Orontes, at the crossroads of the Euphrates and 
the Mediterranean as well as Asia Minor and Palestine, the prosperity of 
Antioch was assured by the continuous flow of commerce from the coun¬ 
tries of the north, south, east and west. Greek, Egyptian, Syrian and Asiatic 
merchants met in its marts, and its population is said to have numbered about 
half a million souls towards the fourth century a.d. 1 Its prosperity under the 
Seleucids was confirmed by the Romans, who granted it the status of a 
civitas libera , a privilege the Antiochenes managed to retain until the close of 
the fourth century. It was then that the Emperor Theodosius I (379-95) 
decided to chastise them for rebellion against his excessive measures of 
taxation by the removal of that privilege. Nevertheless, it was that same 
monarch who embellished the Daphne Gate of the city with a layer of glitter¬ 
ing gold that could be seen from a considerable distance. 2 The development 
of the city and its opulence made it one of the greatest artistic centres of the 
ancient world, with its magnificent temples, forums, theatres, baths, palaces, 
and its historic aqueduct together with all the pompous features of a Roman 
settlement. At one time, it ranked as the third city in the whole empire. Such 
was the Antioch which received from the very beginning Apostolic visita¬ 
tions and became one of the earliest strongholds of Christianity. Although 
it suffered greatly in the period of Roman persecution of Christians, it 

1 E. S. Bourchier, A Short History of Antioch , 300 b.c. - 1268 a.d. (Oxford, 1921), 
PP- 77~8, also states that the city had 100,000 households within a circumference of about 
fifteen miles. The Encyclopedia Britannica mentions only a quarter million as the fourth 
century population. 

2 Bourchier, loc. cit. The city had been known in antiquity as ‘Antioch the Golden’. 



remained the object of imperial attention, and even Diocletian built a tre¬ 
mendous palace in it. Christian Byzantine emperors continued to patronize 
Antioch until it became torn by schism and revolt, especially against the 
Chalcedonian profession in the fifth century. Constantine the Great was the 
first Christian emperor to build an official church in the city, and his example 
was followed by his successors and by the rich citizens and prelates who made 
it a real metropolis of eastern Christendom. Then sectarian quarrels ushered 
in disaffection and disunity among its inhabitants, leading to a steady decline 
of the flourishing city. In fact, the decline of Antioch, thus begun by re¬ 
ligious strife, was strongly accelerated by three momentous factors in its 
history: first, a series of earthquakes, of which the last on record in antiquity 
occurred during the year 526 and ruined many of its notable buildings; 
secondly, the Persian invasion of 538, in which the Sassanid Emperor Chos- 
roes almost completed the destruction of the city; and thirdly, the Arab 
conquest in 638, whereby Antioch was engulfed in an alien Islamic empire 
and separated for ever from the Christian world with the exception of the 
ephemeral and rather unwelcome occupation by the Crusaders. With the 
extermination of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem from the Asiatic mainland, 
Antioch reverted to the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt towards the end of the 
thirteenth century and became a satellite city of secondary importance to the 
amirate of Aleppo. Handed from Muslim to Muslim, the august city was next 
captured by a new Turkish empire builder, Selim I, who seized the whole of 
Syria and Egypt in the years 1516-17. modern history, the Egyptian forces 
managed to capture Antioch twice: first under the Khedive Muhammad 
f Ali during his famous march to Istanbul in 1840, and secondly under General 
Allenby in 1918 at the end of the First World War. Afterwards the city and 
the whole of the Syrian province wrested from the Turks by the Allies were 
put under the mandatory power of France by the League of Nations in 1920. 
In 1939, when the mandate was lifted from Syria, the French authorities 
arbitrarily returned the city together with the whole Sanjaq of Alexandretta 
to the new Turkish Republic. The 1950 census showed its population to have 
been 30,385, a sorry picture compared with its glorious past. 

From this brief survey, it is evident that the days of true greatness in the 
history of Antioch were more or less limited to the ancient period extending 
roughly to the sixth century of our era. The patriarchs of Antioch, whose see 
flourished in those few centuries within the city itself, were doomed to exile 
from their hereditary metropolis, as will be seen in the following pages. The 
importance of early Antiochene history becomes increasingly dim and its 
sources grow more meagre with its steady decline in later ages. With the 
passing of time, the original patriarchate of Antioch, that is, the Monophysite 
and subsequently the Jacobite patriarchate, gave rise to others appropriating 
the same title. These included a Greek Orthodox patriarchate, the Mono- 


thelite Maronite patriarchate now in communion with Rome, the Catholic 
Uniate, or Melkite patriarchate, the Nestorian, or East Syrian, catholicate, 
and both the Armenian and Georgian patriarchates within the coniines of the 
Soviet Union. Yet none of the patriarchs of all these offshoots from Antioch 
now resides in the city of Antioch. 1 Their historic terrain has spread in suc¬ 
cessive ages over Syria, Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, Turkey, Russia, Central 
Asia, India and even China - in a word, the whole of the vast Asiatic con¬ 

Apostolic Visitations and Early History 

The patriarchate of Antioch rightfully claims greater antiquity and fuller 
apostolicity than all the other ancient Christian churches. In fact, there can be 
no doubt as to the venerable age of that church, mentioned so many times in 
the New Testament, notably in the Acts of the Apostles. 2 The new religion 
was first preached to the gentile Greeks in Antioch, and it was there that the 

1 The definitive history of the patriarchate of Antioch, or more specifically, the Jacobite 
Church, is still unwritten. The chapters in Kidd, Churches of Eastern Christendom , pp. 436- 
438; Adeney, Greek and Eastern Churches , pp. 500-9; J. W. Etheridge, The Syrian Churches , 
pp. 135-49; Bourchier, op. cit., pp. 129-50; O. H. Parry, Six Months in a Syrian Monastery , 
pp. 279-355; A. Fortescue, Eesser Eastern Churches , pp. 323-52; and D. Attwater, Christian 
Churches of the East , Vol. II, pp. 255 ff., arc all inadequate. Dc Lacy O’Leary, The Syriac 
Church and bathers (London, 1909)-brief review to rise of Islam. More substantial 
general literature on the subject includes J. M. Neale, A History of the Holy Eastern Church: 
The Patriarchate of Antioch , ed. G. Williams (London, 1873); R* Devreesse, Ee patriarcat 
d'Antioche depuis la paix de Teglise jusqu a la conquete arabe (Paris, 1945); G. W. Eldcrkin, 
R. Stillwell and others, Antioch on the Orontes , 3 vols. (Princeton, 1934-41); G. Downey, 
Ancient Antioch (Princeton, 1963); idem, A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the 
Arab Conquest (Princeton, 1961); R. Duval, Histoire politique , religieuse et litterairc d’Bdesse 
jusqu’a la Premiere Croisade (Paris, 1892). Illuminating articles on various facets and person¬ 
alities of this church may also be found in such famous encyclopaedic works as the Diction- 
naire d'Histoire et de Geographic Ecclesiastiques , cd. A. Baudrillart and others; the Catholic 
Encyclopedia ; the Encyclopedia of Keligion and Ethics', the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique , 
ed. A. Vacant, E. Mangenot and E. Amann; and the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of 
Religious Knowledge , to cite only a few. For more general works in other languages, see the 
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church , cd. F. L. Cross, pp. xiii-xix. The chief ancient 
sources are found in Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica; J. S. Asscmani, Bibliotheca Orientalis , 
Vol. II; Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle , ed. with French tr. J. B. Chabot, 4 vols. (Paris, 
1899-1910); and Bar Hebraeus (Gregorius Abul-Faraj, Ar. cd. A. Salhani, Beirut, 1890). 
Two recent Arabic works from two different angles arc of value: the first is History of the 
Syrian Church of Antioch (4-518 a.d.) by Severius, Syrian metropolitan of Beirut and 
Damascus (2 vols., Beirut, 1953-57)* The author is a ‘Jacobite’ archbishop, and his work 
represents the eastern point of view. The second is The Church of the City of God - Great 
Antioch by Asad J. Rustum, 3 vols. (Beirut, 1958). It represents the Melkite or Greek 
Orthodox offshoot in the East. 

2 Some of the References in Acts are xi, 19-27; xiv, 21, 26; xv, 22-3, 30-5; xviii, 22. 


Apostles were first called Christians. 1 Moreover, Eusebius 2 asserts that the 
church of Antioch was founded by St Peter, who became its first bishop even 
before his translation to the see of Rome. According to tradition, he presided 
for seven years over the newly established Antiochene church, from 33 to 
40 a.d., when he nominated St Euodius as his vicar before departure to the 
West. While the circle of preaching the Gospel was widened towards the 
East in Edessa, Nisibis and distant Malabar by the Apostle Thomas and Mar 
Addai (St Thaddaeus), the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 a.d. could only 
have increased the number of Christian Jewish emigrants to Antioch. 3 For 
those days of remote antiquity, the historical data present only a general 
outline without any certainty as to minute details. We may assume that 
Antioch became the object of Apostolic visitations from the very beginning 
and suffered from Roman persecutions equally with Alexandria and Rome. 
St Euodius is said to have earned the crown of martyrdom in the reign of 
Emperor Nero (54-68 a.d.), and he was succeeded by another glorious 
martyr, St Ignatius, who may have been consecrated by the hands of St 
Peter, St Paul, or at any rate by an Apostolic prelate. 4 The story of St Igna¬ 
tius, who suffered martyrdom in the reign of Trajan (98-117), is interesting 
as it is representative of the spirit of the times. The saint was first subjected 
to a personal inquest by the emperor himself. On finding him so defiantly 
firm in the faith, the emperor ordered him after removal from Antioch to be 
thrown to the wild beasts in the arena at Rome, perhaps in the early part of 
the second century. He was escorted to Rome by the imperial guards, and 
the saint was apparently permitted to address the faithful everywhere and to 
visit fellow Christians in spite of his complaint of cruelties committed against 
his person by his armed companions. In his train was a deacon by the name 
of Philo who followed him through Syria, and at Smyrna he was received by 
Polycarp as well as Onesimus, bishop of Ephesus. Afterwards, he sent epistles 
to the faithful of Ephesus, Philadelphia and Smyrna which are regarded as 
a monument of the literature of the sub-apostolic age. He was followed by 
pious priests during his march from place to place. In Rome, he consoled 
those among the brethren who were moved with grief for his imminent 
death. His Roman journey must have appeared like the triumphant march of a 
spiritual athlete. 5 Finally, he was devoured by the wild beasts before eighty- 

1 Acts xi, 26. 

2 Eusebius, 111 , xxxvi. St Jerome refers to the fact; cf. Neale, p. 3, n. 2. 

3 S. G. F. Brandon, The Tall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church - A. Study of the Hffccts 
of the Jewish Overthrow of a . d . 70 on Christianity (London, 1951), is dubious about the impact 
of the dispersion of the Jews on the spread of the new faith, but the fact remains that 
Antioch rather than Jerusalem became the centre of Apostolic Christianity henceforward. 
Sec also Bourchicr, pp. 13 3—4. 

4 Neale, pp. 11-12. 

5 Eusebius, 111 , xxi, xxxvi; Neale, pp. 19-21. 


seven thousand spectators, whose savage exaltation compared only with the 
compassion of his fellow Christians. The legend runs that his scanty remains 
were taken to his native city, and enshrined there until in the fifth century the 
Empress Eudocia ordered them to be transferred to the old temple of For¬ 
tune, then a church. 1 So revered was the saint in Syrian history that the later 
Jacobite patriarchs invariably adopted the name Ignatius on the occasion of 
their consecration. 

The early Bishops of Antioch were Jewish Christians, certainly until the 
reign of Judas in 135 a.d. He is described as the last of the Bishops of the 
Circumcision. 2 The next landmark in Antiochene church history was the 
bishopric of Theopilus, a highly lettered prelate and a prolific author, who 
undertook the task of combating pagan ideas and the heretical teachings of 
the early Syrian Gnostics. His best-known work is the Treatise to Antolycns , an 
eloquent defence of Christianity and a vehement refutation of Marcion’s 
views. The author’s knowledge of the ancient religions as well as the Old 
Testament and the Gospels is formidable. His mystical interpretation of 
theological themes renders his discussions more appealing to the contem¬ 
porary mind. This is one of the earliest works of Christian theology on 
record. Of great interest is the fact that the term ‘Trinity’ may be traced as far 
back as this treatise, thus indicating that Theophilus was the first to employ 
it. 3 Apparently the book was published at the beginning of the reign of 
Emperor Commodus (180-92), while Christianity was still a persecuted 

It seems that Antioch was steadily becoming a real stronghold of ortho¬ 
doxy. In the following decade, another Antiochene theologian emerged in 
the person of Serapion, who became bishop in 199 and died in 211. He also 
wrote a series of epistles and works addressed to the Greeks and certain 
persons, namely Caricus, Pontius and Domninus. He is said to have combated 
chiefly the heresy of Montanus of Phrygia, but since most of his literary 
work was lost, little could be deduced from fragmentary remains. 4 

A succession of bishops filled the rest of the third century, and we must 
confine this survey to the less obscure amongst them. St Babylas ruled the see 
of Antioch for nearly a decade, between 240 and 250. He was immortalized 
by St John Chrysostom, who stated that he fearlessly denied entrance to the 
church to a Roman emperor with anti-Christian leanings, probably Philip 
the Arabian (244-9) untl l he atoned for his crimes. He lost his life in 

1 Bouchicr, pp. 136-7, doubts whether the relics of St Ignatius ever reached Antioch 
and contends that they must have been buried in an obscure church in Rome. 

2 Neale, p. 22. 

3 Theophilus was the sixth from the Apostles. He also wrote another treatise: ‘Against 
the Heresy of Hermogenes’ (Eusebius, IV, xix, xxiv); Neale pp. 26-9, contains an analysis 
of the work. The Church celebrates his day on 18 October. 

4 Eusebius, V, xviii, xxii; VI, xi-xiii; and Neale, pp. 35-6. 


the persecutions of Decius (249-51), and a special cult was developed 
around his name in Antioch which found its way to the West in an eighth- 
century Latin translation by Aldhelm, the poet bishop of Sherborne. 1 

In contrast to the life of Babylas was that of Paul of Samosata, 2 the well- 
known heresiarch who became bishop of Antioch from 260 to 270. Of humble 
birth, he amassed great wealth which he used to raise himself to that key 
position in the Church. He was a protege of Aenobia, queen of Palmyra, to 
whom he had been tutor in her youth. As the forerunner of Nestorius, he was 
the first to lay the foundations of the Christology of the dual personality of 
Jesus, and it was he who used the celebrated term Ho/t/oo/tsios in the course of 
his dispute v/ith other bishops who condemned his teachings. It took two 
Councils of Antioch to dislocate the notorious Paul from the see of Antioch. 
The first was convoked by Dionysius of Alexandria in 264, and after heated 
discussions in which Paul saw no way of escape, he pretended conviction and 
seemingly rejected his doctrine of consubstantiality. Later he reverted to his 
heterodoxy and combined with it immorality, thus calling for the irrevocable 
decision of deposition by the Second Council of Antioch in 269. 

1 he career of Paul of Samosata stands outside the Antiochene traditions 
of the first three centuries, which may rightly be described as the age of 
persecution and martyrdom for the faith. In fact, the roll of martyrs of the 
church of Antioch was one of the most glorious. Few of its partriarchs died 
peacefully in their beds, the majority earned the martyr’s crown. We read of 
thousands of martyrs of the church of Antioch, from the reign of Nero on¬ 
wards. Perhaps the most conspicuous example was that of the eleven thousand 
martyrs, soldiers who espoused Christianity wholesale in the reign of 
Trajan (98-117), and were banished by the emperor to the wilds of Armenia, 
to be massacred in the reign of his successor, Hadrian (117-38). The stead¬ 
fastness of Antioch, though broken in the infamous reign of Bishop Paul 
was again resumed by other saintly followers, of whom one presbyter must 
be cited as the founder of the great theological school of Antioch. This is 
Lucian, the theologian and martyr who perished in 312 at Nicomedia on the 
eve of the issue of the ‘Edict of Milan’ which enfranchised all Christians. He 
was a great biblical scholar, and revised both the Septuagint and the Gospels. 
The contention that he had been a pupil of Paul of Samosata has been under¬ 
mined, though it is said that some of the seeds of Arianism can be traced to 
his school, since Arius had once been one of its active members. 3 Lucian’s 
school played its role in the movement for the settlement of Christian dogma 
and Christian doctrine. It also produced a number of the historic personalities 

pp. 45-52; Duchesne, Early 

1 Eusebius, VI, xxxi, xxxix; Neale, pp. 41-3. 

2 Eusebius, V, xxviii; VII, xxvii, xxx, xxxii; Neale, 

History of the Christian Church , Vol. T, pp. 337-44. 

1 Eusebius, VIII, xiii; IX, vi; G. Bardy, Recherches sur Lucien d'Antioche ct son ecole (Paris, 
x 93^)> passim; Neale, pp. 71-3; Bourchier, pp. 140-3. 


associated with Antioch. Diodorus, Lucian’s successor, in turn taught John 
Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia, while the latter instructed the 
famous Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, and Theodret, bishop of 
Cyrrhus in Syria, theologian and historian of note. 

Nicaea to Chalcedon 

Under this heading, our chief task is to show the place held by Antioch rather 
than reiterate the whole general history of the councils treated in some detail 
elsewhere. 1 At the first oecumenical council of Nicaea in 325, Antioch was 
strongly represented with a formidable delegation of bishops. 2 Eustathius its 
chief bishop and representative, ranked in the same category as Hosius, 
bishop of Cordova, who was special consultant to Emperor Constantine on 
matters of religion, as well as Alexander, the patriarch of Alexandria, who 
presided over the Council. In fact, those three are said to have participated 
in a kind of co-presidency at Nkxea, and hence the world looked for leader¬ 
ship to Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. It would, however, be 
wrong to contend that Antioch had been unwavering in its loyalty to 
orthodoxy. On the contrary, one may easily sense the signs of imminent 
schism in the course of the Nicasan deliberations. Arius had attended the 
School of Antioch with Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, his fellow disciple 
who submitted to the Council an initial creed with Arian leanings, which the 
majority of bishops rejected outright. After Nicsea, three parties began to 
emerge in Antioch. The first, or Eusebian, party followed the order of 
Nicomedia and Caesarea; in other words, without demonstration of open 
hostility to the Council decisions, which the Emperor Constantine would not 
allow, they continued quietly to work at undermining the Nicaean doctrines. 
This policy gained more ground with the ascendancy of Eusebius, who bap¬ 
tized that emperor (d. 337) in his last illness, and then again caught the ear of 
his successor Constantius (d. 361) leading to the exile of Athanasius from 
Alexandria. The next party was identified with Eustathius (d. 330) who 
adamantly stood for the Nicaean Creed and Canons, thus representing the 
official and orthodox position until Arianism became more popular at the 
imperial court and the bishop was subsequently deposed and sent to Thrace, 
where he died in exile. Then a third party consisted of pious and law-abiding 
people who espoused the Nicaean rule but obeyed the bishop in office, caring 

1 See Part I (Alexandrine Christianity), Chapter 3, section 2 ((Ecumenical Movement). 

2 Devreesse, pp. 1-16, 124-8; Neale, pp. 85 et seq.; Duchesne, II, 98 et seq.; Fliche 
and Martin (ed.), Histoire de Veglise , Vol. Ill, p. 69 et seq. Downey’s works on Antioch 
(see above p. 171. n. 1) provide indispensible historical background for church develop¬ 
ment up to the Arab Conquest. 


little for difference on minutiae and objecting to schism in principle. Strictly 
speaking, it would be difficult to find any outspoken theologian of the time 
in whose words the germs of some kind of heretical thought could not be 
held in suspicion. Even Eustathius 1 was charged with Sabellianism 2 and his 
Christology was regarded as foreshadowing that of Nestorius. 

What is clear is that Arianism was not stamped out during the post- 
Nicene age, and both the emperors and the hierarchy in Constantinople and 
in Antioch, the great sees of the Orient, continued to sway between Arius 
and Athanasius. The accession of Bishop Meletius 3 at Antioch in 360 was 
heralded by both Nicasans and Arians who looked to him for support. He 
was temporarily deposed by the Emperor Constantius for his orthodoxy, 
while unable to obtain the support of Athanasius for his heterodoxy. Twice 
deposed by Emperor Valens, again to be reinstated in 378, he presided over 
the Council of Constantinople of 381, the year of his death. A saintly man, he 
left behind a schism within the orthodox party itself, since the followers of 
Eustathius suspected his theology and consecrated as anti-bishop a certain 
Paulinus in 362. 

This was the age of St John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), who was educated 
in the Antiochene School under Diodorus and elevated unwillingly to the see 
of Constantinople, where his virtues and tactless criticisms antagonized the 
imperial court and ultimately led to his deposition. Even the ‘Golden 
Mouth’ could not escape the iron hand of the time. The age abounded in 
great names of bishops and theologians. St Gregory of Nazianzen (329-89), 
St Gregory of Nyssa (330-95) and St Basil the Great (330-79) were known 
as the ‘three Cappadocian Fathers’. In Jerusalem, St Cyril (ca. 315-86) reigned 
as bishop, and in Nisibis and Edessa the great St Ephraem (ca. 306-73), the 
Syrian Biblical exegete, enriched the literary heritage of Eastern Christianity. 
The Fathers of the Egyptian Church, so numerous and so great, form a 
special chapter of their own. In spite of the swelling tide of heresy and 
schism, Antioch retained its ecclesiastical authority over all the province of 
the Orient. Nican had confirmed its rights over Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, 
Arabia and Mesopotamia including Persia and India. The churches of 
Gesarea, Edessa, Nisibis, Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Malabar looked to Antioch 
for spiritual leadership, at any rate, in the early centuries. That authority was 
again ratified by the Council of Constantinople in 381. Antiochene juris¬ 
diction in the period from the fourth to the seventh century has been cal- 

1 M. Spanncut, ‘Recherches sur les ecrits d’Eustathe d’Antioche’, in Memoires et Travanx 
Facultes Catholiques de Lille, Fasc. LV (Lille, 1948), followed by the edn. of the Greek 
fragments of the works of Eustathius, pp. 95-131. 

2 From Sabellius, obscure Roman theologian of the third century, who gave a new 

interpretation of the earlier heresy of Monarchianism, a movement attempting to safe¬ 
guard Monotheism in the unity, or ‘monarchy’, of the Godhead, and failing to give full 
recognition to the Son. 3 Devrccsse, pp. 17-38. 


culated to embrace eleven metropolitan provinces and one hundred and 
twenty-seven episcopal dioceses. 1 

The accession of John of Antioch to the bishopric in 429 seemed to re¬ 
unite the factions within the church for a brief period. The new, real up¬ 
heaval within the church was forthcoming from another centre by an old 
Antiochian on the subject of Christology. This was Nestorius, a famous 
pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia in the School of Antioch and later patriarch 
of Constantinople, whose expostulations about the two natures of Jesus 
Christ gave rise to the summoning of the third oecumenical council of 
Ephesus 2 in 431 by order of the Emperor Theodosius II. His great antagonist 
was the formidable patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril, who had wrested a decision 
condemning Nestorius for heresy and deposing him just as the belated 
Antiochian delegation was entering the city of Ephesus under Bishop John. 
Though the latter held a separate synod vindicating Nestorius, his efforts 
remained without avail and he was reconciled with Cyril two years after¬ 
wards. That reconciliation had far-reaching results in both East and West. 
Since Antioch conformed with Alexandria on the Monophysite Christology, 
the East Syrians chose to take the side of the deposed Nestorius, and their 
church ultimately became identified with him. In Rome, the predominance 
of Alexandrine theology was viewed with alarm, and steady manoeuvres were 
taken for its reversal. The quarrel of the churches thus assumed gigantic 

The appearance of another heresiarch, Eutyches (ca. 378-454), an archi¬ 
mandrite of one of the monasteries of Constantinople, inflamed even more 
the discussion over Nestorian Christology, which he opposed with great 
vehemence. Eutyches was led to complete confusion of the two natures of 
Jesus, and in vain did Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople try to deter him 
from his error. Meanwhile, the great actors in the drama of the First Ephesus 
had died: John of Antioch and Sixtus of Rome in 440 and Cyril of Alexandria 
in 444. These were succeeded by Domnus II of Antioch, who seemed to be at 
one with Leo I of Rome against the fiery Monophysite Dioscorus of Alex¬ 
andria, who supported Eutyches, then deposed and condemned by Flavian of 
Constantinople. The Second Council of Ephesus was summoned in 449 by 
Theodosius II (408-50), who was under the influence of the Eutychian party 
through the sympathies of his chamberlain the eunuch Chrysaphius. The 
Council acquitted Eutyches, and both Flavian and Domnus were reviled in 
that stormy meeting, since known as the Latrocinium , or ‘Robber Council’. 
But that was an ephemeral success destined to change with the accession of 
another emperor, Marcian (450-7), who lent his ear to the ‘Great Tome’, an 
epistle whereby Leo I, bishop of Rome (440-61), renounced the findings of 
that council. 

1 Ibid., pp. 305-12. 

2 Ibid., pp. 39 ct seq.; Flichc and Martin, IV, 211-24. 


In 451, the emperor summoned the fourth oecumenical council of Chalce¬ 
don, 1 which in turn denounced and anathematized Dioscorus and Eutyches, 
deposed and exiled them both, and adopted Leo’s pronouncements as the 
standard form of orthodox Christology, with immeasurable consequences 
for the relations between East and West. It is true that the emperor gained 
full recognition for the patriarchal status of the see of Constantinople, the 
‘New Rome’, by the twenty-eighth canon of Chalcedon. But the rupture with 
the East was complete without hope of repair. The attempt of the im¬ 
perialist, or ‘Melkite’, clerics to impose the Council decisions on Alexandria, 
Jerusalem and Antioch resulted in bloodshed and the identification of 
nationalist awakening with Monophysite tendencies. The paradox of 
Chalcedon is that it praised Cyril though it denounced his theology, whereas 
it condemned Nestorius while supporting Diophysitism. 

The next serious step in the development of events came in the reign of 
Emperor Zeno 2 (474-91), whose eagerness to bring unity to the Church 
made him accept a formula devised by Acacius, patriarch of Constantinople, 
and Peter Mongus, patriarch of Alexandria. This is the famous Henoticon , 
or ‘Act of Union,’ which he ratified in 482 and which, though anathematizing 
both Nestorius and Eutyches, avoided the mention of ‘one nature’ and ‘two 
natures’ as well as any coercive phraseology towards either orthodoxy or 
Monophysitism. There was no doubt a certain measure of rehabilitation of 
the Monophysites by this act, but it was far from satisfactory to either party 
as a whole. Further, the infuriated Romans hastened to excommunicate 
Acacius, who retaliated by the omission of the name of the Roman pontiff 
from the Byzantine liturgy. This was probably the only immediate outcome 
of the new situation. 

Where does Antioch stand in this universal tumult? At first, its leading 
hierarchy aimed at conforming with the official position. On the other hand, 
the Antiochian clergy together with the majority of the laity did not conceal 
their increasing traditional leanings towards Monophysitism, and they 
ultimately succeeded in forcing the elevation of Monophysite candidates to 
the patriarchal throne. The identification of these religious tendencies with 
the rising feeling of nationalism rendered the movement more and more 
popular in the East. The life of Peter the Fuller, who became patriarch of 
Antioch in 465, represents this restless mood of the times. Twice deposed 
for his Monophysitism, he was finally able to regain his throne by a show of 
acceptance of Emperor Zeno’s Henoticon. Nevertheless, Peter is remembered 

1 Bishop Severius Samuel, History of the Syrian Church of Antioch , Vol. II, pp. 155 ff; 
Asad Rustum, Church of . . . Antioch , Vol. II, pp. 328 ff.; Devreesse, pp. 60 ff., 136-40; 
R. V. Sellers, Council of Chalcedon (London, 1953), pp. 158-81; Duchesne, III, 219-315; 
Fliche and Martin, IV, 228-40; Downey, Antioch in Syria , pp. 461 ff. 

2 Devreesse, pp. 65 ff.; Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire , pp. 107-9; Duchesne, 
IB, 337 -59; Fliche and Martin, IV, 287-97. 


mainly by the introduction of the Monophysite clause ‘who was crucified for 
us’ into the Trisagion , or ‘thrice holy’, of the ancient eastern liturgy where the 
chant runs: ‘Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and immortal, have mercy 
upon us.’ He is also responsible for the commemoration of the Theotokos in 
every service. 

The greatest exponent of Monophysite doctrine at Antioch was the 
Patriarch Severus (ca. 465-5 38). 1 He was closely connected with Alexandria, 
where he had studied in his youth, and later took refuge whenever he fled 
from his persecutors or when he was deposed. His patriarchate coincided 
with the reigns of Emperors Anastasius, Justin and Justinian. At first he was 
in favour with Anastasius (491-518), who gave protection to the Mono- 
physites. In 518, Justin I reversed his predecessor’s policy, and Severus 
accordingly fled from Antioch to Alexandria, where the Patriarch Timothy 
IV offered him shelter. Under Justinian, he was excommunicated by a Synod 
of Constantinople in 536. Until his death in 538, however, Severus remained 
strongly anti-Chalcedonian. He was a great theologian and left behind him a 
number of works of the highest interest, mostly available in the Syriac ver¬ 
sions. His death turned a new leaf in the annals of the see of Antioch. From 
then onwards up to the present day the double succession to that see has been 
maintained. Severus’ rival successors represented the Synodite, or Melkite, 
Greek Orthodox line on the one hand, and on the other, the Syrian Mono¬ 
physite line, soon to be identified as Jacobite, from Jacob Baradxus, one of 
the greatest saints of that church. While the one line looked westward to 
Byzantium, the other looked eastward in search of independence from the 

The two legacies of that age were probably the double hierarchy and the 
doctrine of tritheism. 2 While the one became a permanent feature of Antio¬ 
chian history, the other proved to be ephemeral, though not devoid of 
interest. The invention of this curious heresy which appears to be distinctly 
polytheistic in character could, according to the Syriac chronicle of the 

1 Dcvrecssc, pp. 69-71; E. Honigmann, Tveques et eveches monophysites d*Asie antericure 
an VI e siecle (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Oricntalium, 127: 2; Louvain, 1951), 
pp. 142-54; Bishop Scverius, II, 253, 266. Father V. C. Samuel of the ancient Church of 
South India composed a thesis at the Yale School of Divinity on ‘The Council of Chalcc- 
don and the Christology of Severus of Antioch’ (May 1957) in which he gave an extensive 
definition of a difficult problem and its terminology. Apparently he objects to the use of 
the term ‘Monophysitism’, invented in the West for purposes of reviling the East, and 
he suggests the substitution of the term ‘Mcaphysitism’ (cf. below Epilogue, p. 442 ffi), 
which implies the sense of union of the human and the divine rather than the misleading 
one-ness of nature which never strictly occurred with the orthodox Fathers of the so- 
called Monophysite Church. The thesis is still unpublished. The author made extensive 
use of the Greek and Syriac material in building his arguments. 

2 Dcvreesse, Patriarcat d'Antioche, pp. 76-94; Adeney, p. 504; Fortescue, Lesser Eastern 
Churches , p. 208. 

H E C—G 


Jacobite Patriarch Michael the Syrian , 1 be traced to the imagination of a 
little-known monk of Constantinople by the name of John ‘Asqu^nages’ in 
the reign of the Emperor Justinian. By rejecting the factor of unity in the 
three constituent elements of the Trinity, he was led to the supposition that 
there were three separate divine Persons. Though silenced for the rest of his 
lite, his heretical teachings somehow found several strong supporters at a 
later date among philosophers and theologians. John Philoponus, the 
Aristotelian commentator, was one of them. Others were Photinus (a priest 
of Antioch), Athanasius (a relative of Empress Theodora), and Sergius (a 
priest of Telia who became patriarch of Antioch). The tritheistic school was 
short-lived, but it was symptomatic of the state of an imminent breakdown 
of Syrian Monophysitism . 2 None but a new apostle could save it from 
destruction, and that apostle was near at hand. 

Jacob Baradaeus 

At a time when the Syrian Monophysite hierarchy was dwindling and its 
clergy hunted by Justinian’s agents, the church was salvaged from founder¬ 
ing by the appearance of the immortal personality of Jacob Baradaeus . 3 In 
reality the survival of that Church may be ascribed to two main factors: first, 
the connivance of the Empress Theodora, who is said to have been the 
daughter of a Syrian priest with strong secret sympathies for the eastern 
Monophysite churches in general; and secondly, the unremitting and in¬ 
defatigable efforts of Jacob Baradaeus, whose ventures in its behalf have 
become legendary. Justinian’s determination to have one universal church in 
his unified empire was rigorously pursued with a policy of suppression of 
Monophysitism and the imprisonment and exile of its leaders, including so 
high prelate as Theodosius, patriarch of Alexandria. He and three hundred 
of his clergy were imprisoned in the fortress of Derkos near Constantinople 
for many years . 4 The empress, according to John of Ephesus , 5 put the palace 

1 Chronique de Michel le Syrien , Pafriarche Jacobi/e d’Antiocbc , 1166-1199 a.d., ed. and tr. 
J. B. Chabot, 3 vols. (Paris, 1899-1905), II, 251-3. 

2 Adcney, p. 504, refers to yet another heresy called ‘Tetrathcism’ accruing from the 
teachings of Damianus, a Syrian who recognized God himself as one entity in addition 
to the three Persons constituting the Trinity. 

3 Monograph in Dutch on Jacob’s life: II. G. Klevn, Jacobus Baradccus - de stichter der 
syrische wonophysietische Kerk (Leiden, 1882); Asscmani, Bib/. Orientalis , Vol. I, pp. 255-6. 

4 Ilonigmann, pp. 158-9. Later Theodora succeeded in providing the old patriarch 
with a special refuge in the city for the years 539-48. He remained in favour with Theodora 
until her death (548), and afterwards he still commanded the respect of the emperor 
despite differences with him. Justinian even allowed him to preach in Constantinople, and 
the old patriarch wrote a treatise on the Trinity in which he refuted Trithcism and the 
Sahelian heresy, lie died in Constantinople in 566 after thirty-one years of exile. 

5 His Syriac l 'ita Baradai , ed. J. P. N. Land, in Analecta Syriaca , Vol. II (Leiden, 1862- 


of I lormisdas at the disposal of some five hundred Monophysites from many 
parts of eastern Christendom. Monophysite resistance at home was concen¬ 
trated in the monastic centres of the Wilderness of Scetis in Egypt, as well as 
on the fringe of the Arabian peninsula under the loyal Ghassanid princes, and 
at various places in North Syria, Osrohene and Mesopotamia. The use of 
Coptic in Egypt and of Syriac in Asia rendered the opposition inaccessible to 
the imperial Greek officers who ignored those languages. The decisive date 
in the revival of Syrian Monophysitism was the year 5 42, when, at Theodora’s 
instigation and the debatable request of the Arab King al-Harith ibn Jabalah, 
the old Coptic patriarch consecrated two metropolitans for the regions of 

Asia: Jacob, who became metropolitan of Edessa, and Theodore, bishop of 
Bostra . 1 

Born around 500 at the village of Gamawa, north of Telia (Constantina) in 
the upper reaches of the Euphrates, Jacob took holy orders at the Monastery 
of Phaslltha (i.c., the Quarr\) on Alount Izala. lie received his religious 
education at the College of Nisibis, where, from the year 527, he resided for 
nearly fifteen \ ears until his consecration as bishop. Ide came to Constan¬ 
tinople with another monk by the name of Sergius, whom he later conse¬ 
crated as patriarch of Antioch in succession to Severus, probably in 543. 
The sources are full of apocryphal details concerning the saint, though most 
of the historic particulars of his life and work have been established and 
compiled by various authors. 2 His real career began in 5 42 after his ordination, 
when he is said to have been smuggled out of the Byzantine capital by the 
Arab King al-Harith. 3 At that time the Monophysite clergy in Asia were 

1 ^ 75 )> PP* 3 64—83, see also E. V . Brooks, Lives of the Eastern Saints (Patrologia Orientalis, 
XVII-XIX; Paris, 1923-6). Frequent references arc also made to Jacob’s activities in 
Michael the Syrian’s Syriac Chronicle , Bk X (sec Chabot, II, 285 ct seq.); Bar Hcbncus’ 
Universal History is poor on the subject, but his Chronicon Ecclesiasticum is essential. On 
John of Ephesus, also surnamed ‘of Asia’, and his Ecclesiastical History and Lives of Oriental 
Saints , see J. M. Schonfeldcr, Die Kirchengeschichte des Johannes von Ephesus (Munich, 1862); 
R. Duval, Litterature Syriaque, pp. 191-5, 364. 

1 Otherwise the city of Ba$rah. He was a Monophysite monk from Arabia who was 
imprisoned for several years in Constantinople. He became associated with Jacob Bara- 
dasus as the metropolitan of Arabia and resided mainly in the district of al-Hirah, between 
Mesopotamia and Arabia. Honigmann, pp. 161-64. 

2 Perhaps the best life of Jacob is in E. Honigmann, op. cit., pp. 157-60, 163-5, 178-81, 
and passim. Next in importance is R. Dcvrecssc, pp. 75-92. The older work in Dutch by 
11. G. Kleyn (see above p. 180 n. 3) is of course still useful. Other shorter biographies arc 
O. FI. Parry, Six Months in a Syrian Monastery , pp. 291-5; Adcncy, pp. 500-3; Kidd 
Eastern Christendom , pp. 436-7; Fortescue, pp. 323-6; E. Venables in Dictionary of Christian 
Biography , Vol. Ill, pp. 328-32; M. A. Krugcncr in Revue de /’Orient Chretien , VI1 (1902), 
196-217. See also Assemani, Bibl. Orient ., II, 62-9. Bishop Sevcrius, History of the Syrian 
Church , Vol. II, pp. 25 5-7, indicates his ability as a prolific poet; idem, ‘The Syrian Church 
Yesterday and Today’, in Orthodoxy , VI (1956), 227-9. 

3 Written in Western documents as Arctas or Arcthas. He is the son of King al-Mundhir 
of the 'Iayy tribe. Asad llustum, I, 277, quotes the older historian and Orientalist Theodor 


pursued by imperial agents who either disbanded or imprisoned them as 
enemies of the state. This was done in accordance with Justinian’s strict 
orders as an essential measure to eradicate disunity from his realm. We are 
told that only two Syrian bishops were able to retain a precarious freedom 
and that Syrian congregations were left without shepherds in most districts. 
The church was in serious danger of extinction until it found its true restorer 
in the person of Jacob Baradxus 1 — Ya f qub al-Bardah. He dressed himself in 
shabby vestments made of old saddle cloth, not only for austerity, but also as 
a measure of disguise from his imperial prosecutors. 

Jacob had no fixed headquarters as his residence. 2 His vast journeys from 
country to country in western Asia as well as Egypt are almost incredible for 
any man who travelled mainly on foot. He is said to have traversed the whole 
of Syria, Armenia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Isauria, Pamphylia, Lycaonia, Lycia, 
Phrygia, Caris, Asia and the ‘Islands of the Sea’, that is, Cyprus, Rhodes, 
Chios, Mytilene or Lesbos, as well as the royal city of Constantinople. 3 To 
these we must add the whole of Mesopotamia, Arabia, Sinai and Egypt. 
Nothing could be more reminiscent of the memorable voyages of St Paul in 
the Apostolic age. Everywhere the great saint defended the persecuted 
Monophysite doctrines, strengthened the faithful, and ordained new bishops 
and priests to replace those who died without successors and those who were 
kept in captivity. Probably no prelate in history ordained as many clergymen 
as Jacob and although it is difficult to believe the number of 102,000 priests 
quoted in his apocryphal biographies, his ordinations must be numbered in 
thousands. The same apocryphal lives of the saint also state that he conse¬ 
crated 87 or 89 bishops, but the number of 27 prelates can be justified from 
the official records. 4 

Noldeke, who contends that al-Harith’s visit to Constantinople and his role in the story 
of Jacob’s exit from the city are apocryphal. On Arab Christianity, see also Asad Rustum, 
I, 390-402. 

1 The Latinized form of the Syriac Bard'aya or Bard'ana, in Arabic Bardad; that is, 
originating from a beast of burden’s saddle, implying that his tattered clothing was made 
from old animal covers, whether donkeys or mules. 

2 As a rule his hiding place was a monastery and he is known to have frequently 
sojourned at the Convent of Beth Aphthonia (Honigmann, p. 174). 

3 Cf. Honigmann, p. 168. 

4 Since no less than three bishops could consecrate other new bishops, it must be 
assumed that Jacob sought at first collaboration from Theodore of Arabia (Honigmann, 
pp. 158-64), who was ordained with him by Patriarch Theodosius and Bishop John of 
Hephaistou (ibid., pp. 165-7). Other bishops from Egypt may also have assisted him, but 
there is no concrete evidence for the fact. The names and distribution of the new bishops 
enumerated by Honigmann, pp. 172-3, are as follows: Dometius of Laodicia, John of 
Sclcucia in Syria, Conon of Tarsus, Eugcnius of Seleucia in Isauria, John of Chaleis, 
Sergius of Carrhes, John of Soura, Eunomios of Amid, John of Ephesus, Peter of Smyrna, 
John of Pcrgamus, Peter of Tralles, John of Chios, Paul of Aphrodisias, Julian of Ala- 
banda, and twelve unnamed bishops for the provinces of Egypt whom he consecrated by 
mandate from Patriarch Theodosius in the royal city of Constantinople itself. 


Jacob, who literally became the spiritual leader of his Church, was never 
elevated to the patriarchal throne, but he himself consecrated two patriarchs. 
One was Sergius of Antioch (ca. 542-62), 1 his old companion in captivity at 
Constantinople. The other was Paul the Black (564-81), an Egyptian born in 
Alexandria who spent part of his monastic life in some of the Syrian monas- 
teiies. His career was stormy, and, like the rest of the patriarchs of Antioch 
since Justinian, he was never able to attain that city as a Monophysite. He 
was pursued by the emperor’s men and had to take refuge at the court of the 
Ghassanid Arab kings, al-Harith ibn Jabala and his successor al-Mundhir, 
and sometimes in the Mareotis desert south-west of Alexandria. Apparently 
he at one time feigned conversion to the Chalcedonian profession of faith and 
was welcomed by the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, where he spent 
a few years and where he died after a chequered reign of schisms within his 
church and the taint of tritheism of which Sergius was also accused. 2 

The latter phase of Jacob’s life is wrapped in obscurity. In 5 70, the emperor 
summoned him with Theodore of Arabia to a council in Constantinople. 
Theodore went, but Jacob was forced by the monks of Syria to remain in the 
East, which offended the emperor. In 575, Jacob presided over an Eastern 
council where Paul the Black was received in the hope of ending a local 
schism. Owing to the split between Peter of Alexandria and Paul of Antioch, 
a new menace of a greater schism between the two sister churches of Egt'pt 
and Syria loomed on the horizon. To prevent this, Jacob had to accept 
Paul’s deposition by Peter, after which Paul retired to die in Byzantium. 
Jacob then planned to visit Alexandria with a delegation of eight, amongst 
whom were some bishops, in order to cement the traditional union between 
the two great Monophysite churches. But he and three other members died 
mysteriously towards the end of July 578 at the Monastery of St Romanos on 
Mount Casion near the Egyptian eastern frontier. The Coptic patriarch 
Damianos, who succeeded Peter, sent a letter of condolence to the clergy of 
the East on the occasion of this irreparable loss. Later, in the year 622, 

Jacob’s remains were transferred to his old monastery of Phaslltha, in the 
neighbourhood of Telia. 3 

The vast efforts of the great saint who imparted his name to the Jacobite 
Church, lasting for more than thirty-five years, ended in the consolidation of 
its tottering structure. It is interesting to know that he also left his impression 
in Persia. He is said to have visited the court of Chosroes I (the famous Arabic 
Kisra Anu Sharwan) at Seleucia in 559 to gain tolerance for the Christian 
Jacobites. While there, he raised the bishop of Beth 'Arabaye, by name 
Ahudemmeh,for the first time to the dignity of‘metropolitan of the East’, thus 

1 Devreesse, p. 119, fixes his accession in 538, but this could not be the case since Jacob 

escaped from Constantinople only in 542. For the certain date of his life, see Honiemann 
pp. 192-5. 

2 Honigmann, pp. 195-205. 3 ibid., pp I?6 _ 7> 


laying the foundation for the Jacobite Maphrianate, or catholicate, of Persia. 1 
The new metropolitan was active in preaching the Gospel according to his 
creed and ended by earning the crown of martyrdom in 575 at Chosroes’ 
hands for converting a member of the imperial family to Christianity. In 
Persia, however, the Jacobites and Nestorians survived side by side until the 
coming of the Arabs, under whose rule both their churches attained a status 
of legality which they had never enjoyed with Byzantium. 

Jacob’s life began like a flaming torch and ended in the gloom of schism 
and persecution. He was a holy man and a great evangelist. He was unassum¬ 
ing and lived in strict poverty and austerity, yet fame pursued him in spite of 
his own will. At the time of his death the Monophysite Church of Syria had 
an assured existence, thanks to his tireless and tenacious efforts and devotion. 
He was also a man of considerable theological and scriptural knowledge and 
could defend the teachings of his church in Greek, Syriac and Arabic, which 
he spoke with equal facility. On the whole, he must be regarded as one of the 
most remarkable figures of his age. 

Ascetics and Stylites 

The development of the Jacobite monastic ideal was pre-eminently one of 
very great austerity. 2 From the beginning it fell under the influence of ascetics 
and stylites. It must, however, be noted that the story of early monasticism in 
the Asiatic regions of the Middle East could not be designated as Jacobite or 
Nestorian, Syrian or East Syrian, Monophysite or Diophysite. These dis¬ 
tinctions became sharply defined when the rupture with Antioch reached its 
consummation with Babai II’s assumption of the patriarchal title in 498. 
Until then, therefore, the first stages in the introduction and progress of 
monastic teachings from Egypt must be studied in common between 
Edessa and Nisibis, Antioch and Seleucia-Ctesiphon, with St Augin of 

1 John of Ephesus calls Ahudemmeh ‘Catholicos of the Orthodox’, a title which 
appears for the first time with the Monophysites of Persia. Cf. Honigmann, Le Convent 
de Barsauma et le Patriarcat Jacobite d' Antioch e et de Syrie (Louvain, 1954), pp. 94—5. The 
title of ‘Maphrian of Tekrit’ first appeared in 629 and was suppressed in Persia as late as 
1859, although in recent years it has been revived in an honorary capacity for the Jacobite 
metropolitan of Jerusalem. See Bishop Severius Jacob,‘The Syrian Church’, in Orthodoxy , 
p. 228; Fortescue, p. 340. 

2 A. Voobus, Celibacy - A Requirement for Admission to Baptism in the Parly Syrian 
Church (Papers of the Estonian Theological Society in Exile; Stockholm, 1951). This 
interesting thesis which demonstrates this tendency from Syriac, Armenian and Arabic 
sources is based mainly on the homilies of Aphrahet, written between 336 and 345, where 
he expresses his antipathy to marriage as a mere means of procreation without ethical or 
spiritual value. He even puts it that celibacy and asceticism are requirements for admission 
to baptism. 


Clysma as the historic initiator of the movement in Upper Mesopotamia in 
the course of the fourth century. 1 Although differences had existed between 
Antiochian orthodoxy and Nestorian heterodoxy from the early decades of 
the fifth century, the co-operation of the two schools of thought remained 
effective in both church and monastic life. The great Rabbula (d. 435), 
staunchly orthodox in character, was succeeded by the unorthodox Ibas 
(d. 457) in the bishopric of Edessa. It would be erroneous to label the 
earlier foundations as solely belonging to the one camp or the other, except, 
of course, in very special cases. This distinction took shape gradually in later 
times as a natural result of the intensification of the differences between the 
Western and Eastern Syrians with a host of historic factors at work in the 
background. On the whole, however, the thesis that the Jacobites were 
essentially identified with the monastic establishments to the north of 
Baghdad around Tekrit, whereas the Nestorians occupied the foundations 
south of Ba gh dad with Seleucia-Ctesiphon (the Arab al-Mada’in or twin 
cities) as the seat of their religious activities, is acceptable. 2 Ba gh dad itself 
appears to have remained mainly under Nestorian predominance. 

There is little doubt that the cenobitic life was adopted by the Syrian 
monks in the course of the fourth and fifth centuries. Evidence shows that at 
least thirty-five fully fledged monasteries had come into being during those 
two centuries in Mesopotamia and its adjacent territories. 3 The tendency to¬ 
wards rigorous asceticism in the monastic ranks of the Syrian church is 
apparent in every phase of its early annals. Syrian hagiography teems with 
those self-mortifying spiritual athletes from St Augin (d. ca. 363) to St Jacob 
Barackeus (d. 578) and beyond. But perhaps the most striking and peculiarly 
distinctive feature in the story of Syrian asceticism is the emergence of that 
class of saints who retired from the world to complete seclusion on top of 
ancient pillars or pillars which they erected for themselves. They became 
known as ‘stylites’. 4 The inventor and promoter of this mode of life is said 

1 See the section below on Nestorian monasticism. 

2 This is the view advanced by Bahija Fattuhi Lovcjoy, member of the Jacobite church, 
of Iraqi birth and American citizenship, in her unpubl. diss. (Harvard, 1957) ‘Christian 
Monasteries in Mesopotamia’. The thesis is the most comprehensive record of the mon¬ 
asteries in this area, most of which have disappeared. The author was able to compile 
and identify 163 monasteries from the Arabic and Syriac sources. The material is preceded 
by a chapter on Christianity in Mesopotamia (pp. 2-41) and another on the sources, 
notably the tenth-century Arabic al-Shabushti and his Kitdb al-Diydrdt (pp. 43-67). The 
monasteries themselves are enumerated under two sections: the first based on al-Shabushti 
and other writers (pp. 69-169), and the second containing monasteries mentioned by 
mediaeval and modern Christian and Muslin writers (pp. 171-272). 

3 Ibid., pp. 282-90. In his indexes, Voobus (see note 1, p. 186) under Daird (monastery) 
enumerates 113 in his first two volumes, where he has not yet used al-Shabushti (Kitdb 
al-Diydrdt). In Vol. II, pp. 224-55, Voobus gives a repertory of the more outstanding 

4 From the Greek (m’t/.o;, pillar. 


to have been St Simeon Stylites (ca. 389-459), some of the details of whose 
career seem to be pure legend on account of their superhuman character. 
Nevertheless, the Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, Armenian and Arabic 
hagiographies are in agreement about the sum total of his biography, which 
forms a luminous chapter in the story of the Syrian church and of the Syrian 
monastic ideal. 1 

Born of devout Christian parents at Sis, in the borderland of Syria and 
Cilicia, he spent his childhood as a shepherd and received no education. In 
the mountain solitude he had visions of a holy and constructive life. Around 
the age of sixteen he joined a neighbouring community of monks, with 
whom he spent the first ten years of his ascetic life. Even in his early youth he 
performed such feats of asceticism and self-torture as to frighten and even 
alienate his older colleagues. Whereas other monks broke their fast every 
two days, he ate only once a week. Then he tied a rough rope made of rough 
palm-tree fibre on his flesh underneath his garment and his secret was re¬ 
vealed when his fellows saw a trail of blood trickling from his body. He 
refused to accept a healing ointment for his ulcer, and the superior decided to 
expel him from the monastery. So he fled to the mountain and hid himself in 
a dry cistern for five days, until his old superior regretted his guilt and sent 
his men to scour the countryside to bring him back to the fold. Yet he did 
not stay with them long, for his soul aspired to greater austerities. When he 
retired to the wilderness of Tellneshin, some leagues from Antioch, he asked 
a certain Bassus to build a wall over the entrance of his cell and leave him 

1 The Greek lives of some of the famous Stylites have been edited by the Bollandist 
Hippolyte Delahaye, Les Saints Stylites , Subsidia Hagiographica XIV (Brussels and Paris, 
1923), The book includes a fine introduction on the life of St Simeon Stylites (pp. i-xxiv); 
but the Greek texts published in it are those of St Daniel (pp. 1-147), St Alypius (pp. 
148-95), St Luke (pp. 195-237) and St Simeon the Younger (pp. 238-71), all stylites. The 
best life of St Simeon the Elder has been preserved by his contemporary the Antiochene 
bishop of Cyrrhus, Theodoret (c. 393-c. 458), noted theologian and historian (cf. Hist. 
Re/ig., 26). See also Acta Sanctorum , Jan. 1 (Antwerp, 1643), pp. 261-86; the Greek life 
ed. A. Papadopoulos-Keramaes (St Petersburg, 1907); the Syriac life ed. H. Leitzmann, 
‘Das Leben des heiligen Simeon Stylites’, in Texte und Unterschungen %iir Geschichte der 
altchristlichen Literatur , ed. O. von Gebhardt and A. von Harnack (Leipzig, 1882), XXXII, 
4, 1908; P. Peeters, S. Simeon Stylite et sespremiers biographes , Analecta Boll., LXI (1943), 
pp. 29-71. The Arabic life may be found in the Sinai Arabic MSS. nos. 352, 406, 445,448 
and 571; see Atiya, Arabic MSS. of Mt Sinai, pp. 9, 11, 13-14, and 23. Assemani,B/Z?/. Orien¬ 
talise I, 254-5. On Syrian asceticism in general, see the most elaborate work in recent 
years: A. Voobus, A History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient: A Contribution to the History 
of Culture in the Near East , 2 vols. (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Nos. 
184, 197; Louvain, 1958-60). The work is planned in five volumes: (1) The Origin of 
Asceticism, Early Monasticism in Persia; (2) Early Monasticism in Mesopotamia and 
Syria; (3) Monasticism among the Monophysites, Blossoming and Fate under Arabs to 
10th Century; (4) Monasticism among the Nestorians; and (5) Aftermath of Syrian 
Monasticism, Breakdown of Arab Empire to Timur Lenk. Only Vols. I and II have 
appeared. On St Simeon Stylites see II 208-23. References to other stylites are scattered 
and so far somewhat inadequate. 


without provisions for forty days, since it was Lent. Bassus blocked the 
entrance but insisted on leaving ten loaves and a pitcher of water with the 
saint to prevent a suicidal project. When he reopened the enclosure at the 
end of Lent, he found the provisions intact and the saint prostrate between 
life and death. Simeon was nursed back to health. Theodoret, his authorita¬ 
tive biographer, says that the saint repeated this frightful experience twenty- 
eight years in succession . 1 No wonder his fame spread far and wide through 
Christendom and pilgrims began to frequent his hermitage. He wrought 
miracles of healing the paralytic and the sick, and of blessing sterile wives 
who bore children. The growing reverence to his person disturbed him, and 
men and women sought to touch him or take clippings of his leather tunic as 
a holy relic. It dawned upon him that he might solve his problem by mount¬ 
ing a column for complete segregation. So he built himself a pillar eleven 
cubits high, later raising it to seventeen and twenty-two, on which he lived 
for seven years. The new idea apparently appealed to the saint, who finally 
raised the pillar to forty cubits 2 and spent his remaining thirty years standing 
on it exposed to the elements with nothing but a hood to cover his head. 
Once a visitor from Ravenna, watching the saint in that superhuman posture 
without food or sleep, asked him whether he was man or angel. The saint 
ordered a ladder to be brought for the pilgrim to come to him and made him 
feel his flesh. He preached twice a day and at night raised his hands in prayer 
until dawn. He performed miracles and converted the heathen. A whole 
settlement arose around his pillar, with a continuous stream of pilgrims from 
every corner of Syria, from Armenia, Georgia, Persia and Arabia as well as 
Spain, Britain, Gaul and Italy. The Emperor Theodosius II and his sisters 
sent a delegation of bishops to ask him to come down from his pillar and 
come to court to heal the sick at the capital. They were unable to persuade 

When he died, his body was closely guarded by six bishops and six hundred 
soldiers under the command of Ardaburius, head of the militia. His precious 
remains, placed in a lead sarcophagus, were carried in procession to the 
church of Cassianus and a month later transferred to the cathedral church of 
the city of Antioch. Around his column arose a great octagon with a magni¬ 
ficent dome flanked by four church buildings in the shape of a cross. The art 
and architecture of the now ruined Qafat Sam r an leave the spectator speech¬ 
less with admiration for the immensity of those structures as well as the 
beauty of their stone carving and elegant soberness . 3 

1 Cf. Delahaye, p. xxvi. 

2 Approximately sixty feet, according to the above-mentioned ‘Lives’. Other accounts 
of his life reduce it to thirty cubits, that is to forty-five feet. Voobus, II, 214, estimates 
about fifteen metres. 

3 Downey, Antioch in Syria , pp. 459-61, discusses St Simeon’s spiritual impact on the 
political government of the city. 


'I he deceased saint unwittingly inaugurated a new mode of ascetic life. 1 
1 lis example was followed by scores of stylites, members of the Syrian 
church, throughout the Middle Ages, and the movement extended even 
beyond the frontiers of that church to Egypt and Greece. St Daniel of 
Samosata in Syria (d. 502) spent forty-two years on his pillar, and St Simeon 
the Younger (d. 592) of Edessa occupied another pillar near Antioch for 
some forty-live years and performed innumerable miracles. 2 St Michael, a 
pupil of St Acha, after founding a monastery at the ancient town of Nineveh, 
retired to the top of a pillar where he remained until his death in 5 56 at the 
advanced age oi 105 years. 3 n,ven under the rule of the Arabs, stylites were 
to be found. St John of Litharba (al-Atharib, near Aleppo), who was an 
exegete, astronomer and historian of no mean merit and whose lost chronicle 
was used by the famous historian, Michael the Syrian, spent the concluding 
\ears of the seventh and the opening years of the eighth centuries perched on 
a column. Pilgrims from distant regions in Europe saw stylites during their 
eastern peregrinations. St Willibald records (723) two cases, and the Russian 
priest Daniel (1106—7) found one at Bethlehem. Thomas of Marga mentions 
a ninth-century Jacobite stylite at Beth Kardagh who succumbed in a hail¬ 
storm and was ridiculed by the Nestorian metropolitan of Adiabene. Basil II, 
who became Jacobite catholicos in 848, had previously been an inmate of 
the Monastery of Beth Bottin in Mesopotamia, where he was known as 
Lazarus the Stylite. 4 

Notable examples outside Syria include St Alypius of Adrianople, in 
Paphlagonia, who died in the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-41). He spent 
many years on a pillar and was endowed with the gift of prophecy. 5 St Luke 

Anatolia lived in the tenth century, and died a centenarian on a pillar near 
historic Chalcedon . 6 Egypt, too, had its first stylite in the person of Theo- 
philus the Confessor, cited by the chronicler John of Nikiou in the reign of 
Heraclius. Both the Coptic and Ethiopic Synaxaria quote the name of St 
Agathon the Stylite without fixing the years of his life . 7 Ancient columns 

It is interesting to know that the unknown precursor of St Simeon’s is a former prefect 
of Constantinople under Emperor Theodosius II by the name of Theodolus, who, it is 
asserted, spent years of his later life of penitence on a column near Edessa, but the histori¬ 
city of that episode is questioned. Delahaye, pp. cxviii—cxx. Delahaye refutes the authenti¬ 
city of the ‘Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite’, supposed to be written at the unlikely date 
of 507 a.d., and whose provenance is said to have been the Monastery of Zouqnin near 
Amida or Diyarbekr (see P. Martin, Chronique de Josue le Stylite [Leipzig, 1878] and W. 
W right. The Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite [Cambridge, 1882]). Delahaye asserts that there 
is confusion between this chronicle and the life of St Daniel, the earliest stylite after St 
Simeon. On ‘Josue Stylites’, see also Assemani, Bill. Orient ., I, 260-82. 

2 Delahaye, pp. lvi-lvii, lxiv-lxxi. 

2 Ibid., p. exxi. 4 JEid., pp. exxv et seq. 

& Ibid., pp. lxxvi-lxxxv (introduction), 148-94 (Greek lives). 

6 Ibid., pp. lxxxvi-cv (introduction), 195-237 (Greek life). 

' Ibid., pp. cxxxv cxxxvi. 


were sometimes occupied by stylites. Two columns erected by Iheodosius 
and Arcadius in Constantinople were found to serve this purpose in the 
thirteenth century when two stylites replaced the fallen imperial statues. 

That mode of life, though demanding the fortitude of a spiritual athlete, 
was not altogether impossible. If taken as an example, the capital of Pompey’s 
Pillar in ancient Alexandria is nearly ten feet wide and has a considerable 
hollow where the base of Diocletian’s statue was htted. l rom the existing 
stump of St Simeon’s Pillar at QaPat Sarrfan, it can be deduced that each 
side of the square capital was about six feet. 1 he stylite was not completely 
segregated from the rest of humanity. A hanging ladder served his disciples 
and admirers for the purpose of carrying the scanty provisions to their 
master. In some cases a support was planted on the column against which the 
stylite leaned, since most stylites spent their lives in a standing posture. 
Modern times have seen occasional stylites. The last was mentioned about 
1848 by the traveller Brosset at Djqondidi in Georgia, where a recluse built a 
tiny cell for himself on a column in the Caucasian Mountains. 1 

We should not, however, regard the rise of the stylites as a separate 
movement which developed independently of Syrian monasticism. I he two 
were often linked together, since in many cases the stylites came from already 
existing monasteries, and the reverse occasionally happened: a monastic 
settlement was built up around a saint’s column. Planted in eastern Asia by 
an Egyptian — Mar Augin, or St Eugenius of Clysma 2 — in the fourth century, 
monasticism flourished in the Syrian church on a cenobitic pattern and 
discipline in accordance with the new and elaborate rule of St Pachomius the 
Great (ca. 290-346) in the Thebaid. 3 The first of these monasteries was natur¬ 
ally that of Mar Augin himself, founded towards the end of the fourth century 

1 Ibid., pp. cxxxv, cxlvii, cl. 

2 This is al-Qulzum of the Arab Middle Ages situated at the head of the Gulf of Suez, 
roughly where modern Suez stands. 

3 Sources of Syrian monasticism and monastic establishments are enumerated by 
Voobus (see note on p. 186), Mrs Lovcjoy in her unpubl. diss. (see p. 185, n. 2) and Paul 
Kruger in his diss.. Das syrisch-monopbysitiscbe Moncbtum im Tur- Ab(Jj)din von seme/;/ 
Anfangen bis sur Mitte des 12. Jabrhunderts (Munster i. W., 1937). The chief Arabic source 
is Abul-Hasan f Ali b. M. Al-Shabushti (d. 998 a.d.), (Book of the Monasteries), ed. by 
Gurgis c Awwad (Baghdad, 1951). The editor provides an extensive bibliography in¬ 
cluding practically all the sources and secondary materials existing in Arabic. Al-Shabushti 
used earlier Arabic works on monasteries, all lost, notably those by Hisham b. M. b. 
al-Sa’ib al-Kalbi (d. 819 or 821 a.d.) and Abul-Faraj b. r Ali b. Al-Hasan al-Isfahani 
(d. 966), author of the famous Kitdb al-Agbani. In turn al-Shabushti’s work was utilized 
by subsequent Arab writers such as Abu Salih al-Armanni (d. 1172), the geographers 
Yaqut (d. 1228), Qazwlni (d. 1283) and ibn r Abdul-Haqq (d. 1338), the encyclopedist ibn 
Fadl-Allah al-'Umari (d. 1348), and the historians ibn Shaddad (d. 1234), al-Maqrlzi 
(d. 1441) and ibn Tulun (d. 1546). A 1 Shabushti’s work is pre-eminently literary, but con¬ 
tains numerous authentic references of historical and geographical interest. He surveys 
a total of fifty-three monasteries distributed as follows: thirty-seven in Iraq, four in al- 
Jazlra (upper Mesopotamia), three in Syria and nine in Egypt. Apparently these were 


on the original mountain of his retirement overlooking the plains of Nisibis. 
It was seized by the Nestorians in the sixth century, and it flourished under 
the caliphate. An old Chaldaean Nestorian calendar states that at one time it 
housed 160 monks and owned 400 heads of sheep, live mills and five villages. 
Moreover, it enclosed a school for the edification of both ecclesiastical and 
secular scholars. In the sixteenth century the number of its Chaldean 
occupants dwindled, and the Jacobite Syrians in turn revived monastic life 
in it. In 1909 an abbot and eight hermits resided there, and after the First 
World War only one inmate was left in all its vast establishments . 1 

In the fifth century the monastery of Mar Barsauma came into existence. 2 
Its founder played some role in the controversy over the Eutychian heresy, 
and attended tne Council of Ephesus of 449 by special invitation from the 
Fimperor Theodosius II. He was the only participant below the rank of 
bishop, since he remained an archimandrite to the end. He died in 457. The 
importance of his monastery, which was situated in the mountains between 
Samosata and Melitene (Malatiya), is due to the fact that it became the chief 
seat of the Jacobite patriarchs under Arab rule from the eighth or ninth cen¬ 
turies until the middle of the fourteenth, when it was destroyed by the 
Kurds. It has been in ruins ever since. It was in this monastery that the 
greatest literary monuments of Jacobite church history saw the light. Here 
Michael the Syrian (1166—99) resided and wrote his famous chronicle. His 
tomb stood amidst those of other Jacobite patriarchs in one of its churches. 
The anonymous Syriac Chroiiographici of 1234 was also recorded within its 
precincts, and at least a major part of the renowned Histories of Bar Hebrams 
(1226-86) before his preferment to the maphrianate of Tekrit and all the 
Orient. Afterwards, the patriarchs apparently chose as a new seat the 
Monastery ot al-Za faran (Saffron), otherwise known as the Monastery of 
Mar Hanania, the active archbishop of Mardin who built it in 793-800 on 
the basis of a more ancient foundation and enriched it with a great library. 
Eighty monks flocked to it in his own lifetime, and the patriarchs actually 
lived there from 1293* It has been in continuous use ever since. It is a strongly 
fortified establishment on the mountain overlooking Nisibis on the caravan 

still in use in the tenth century, but the list is incomplete, especially in connection with 
Syria and Egypt. The editor, however, supplemented the text with additional material 
from other sources on thirty-one more monasteries. Some of his information is furnished 
by the Jacobite patriarch Ephraem I Barsum of Homs, whose erudition and first-hand 
knowledge add weight to these statements. Al-Shabushti’s section on Egyptian Monas¬ 
teries is edited by A. S. Atiya in Bulletin de la Societe d\Archeologie Copte , T. V (1939), 
pp. 1-28. 

1 Al-Shabushti, pp. 121, 238-41; Lovejoy, pp. 123-7. 

Honigmann, Pe Convent de Barsauma et le Patriarcat Jacobite d’Antioche et de Syrie i 
Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Vol. 146, Subsidia Tome 7 (Louvain, 
1 954); Voobus, Asceticism , II, 196-208. 


route between Mosul, Mardin and Damascus, in an area rich with vineyards, 
fruit trees and attractive vegetation. Of its monks twenty-one became 
patriarchs, nine maphrians, and no bishops. 1 It is the most frequented of 
Jacobite monasteries by pilgrims, visitors and travellers from East and 
West. 2 

The next important Jacobite monastery is that of Shaikh Mattai (Matthew), 
as it has been called in the Arab period. It is situated, fortress-like and 
partly hewn in the solid rock on the Maqlub Mountain, overlooking the 
plains of ancient Nineveh twenty miles north-west of Mosul. Mar Mattai, 
who founded it in the latter part of the fourth century, was originally a 
native of the district of Amid (Diyarbekr). During the persecutions of Julian 
the Apostate (d. 363), he fled towards the Persian frontier with three com¬ 
panions - Abraham, Zakki and Daniel - and himself became a hermit in a 
cave where the monastery now stands. Others soon followed his example by 
adopting ascetic life in neighbouring caves. This was the modest beginning 
of one of the most extensive monasteries in history. The Arab geographer 
Yaqut, writing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, said that it was in¬ 
habited by a thousand monks. 3 In the Middle Ages it became a centre of 
learning and instruction. In a synod of 869 its abbots and monks recognized 
the authority of the Jacobite maphrian of the East. By the tenth century it 
was regarded as an equivalent to the patriarchal convent of Barsauma, and 
the maphrians resided in it. Both the cell and the tomb of Bar Hebrxus inside 
one of its chapels are objects of interest to visitors and pilgrims to Mar 
Mattai. The invaluable chronicles of Bar Hebrasus must have been finished 
here. It is sad to realize that the priceless contents of its famous library are 
now dispersed abroad between the Vatican, the British Museum and other 
European manuscript repositories. Its present superior, Bishop Timothy 
Ya'qub, guards closely a handful of unimportant codices and is assisted in the 
administration of the monastery by four monks who deal with the stream of 
visitors. The present status of the monastery is that of a hostelry, or summer 
resort, for wealthy Iraqis and Iranians from Mosul and elsewhere. 4 

1 Al-Shabushti, pp. 121-6; also Patriarch Ephracm’s notes, on pp. 241-2. 

2 O. H. Parry, Six Months in a Syrian Monastery (London, 1895), pp. 103 ct scq. For a 
more recent visit, see Jules Leroy, Moines et monasteres du Proche-Orient (Paris, 1958), 
pp. 246-7. It was situated, of course, in the mountainous region famous by the name of 
Tur 'Abdin. 

3 Mu'jam al-Buldan, II, 694. Perhaps the number is exaggerated, but it denotes the 
size of the community. 

4 Parry, pp. 263-9; Leroy, pp. 228-33. Mrs Lovcjoy, a Jacobite herself and a frequent 
visitor to that monastery since her girlhood, gives a vivid personal picture of it in her 
thesis, pp. 211-20. She notes the vandalism of the Mongols, Turks and Kurds in regard to 
the monastery and the dawn of peaceful existence since the declaration of Iraqi independ¬ 
ence in 1921. Many native Iraqi Muslims share the reverence of the old Shaikh with their 
Christian compatriots. 


South-west of Mosul exists another ancient monastery of Mar Behnam, 
who was converted to Christianity by Mar Mattai. It changed hands several 
times. First, the Nestorians took it after their breach with the Monophysites. 
Then in the sixth century, the Jacobites recovered and retained it until 1767, 
when its Superior Hindi Zora went over to Roman Catholicism with his 
monastery. It has remained with the Chaldaeans, who have been using it 
mainly as a school. The building, though largely restored in modern times, 
still has older sections and chapels of pure arabesque style and numerous bas- 
reliefs of various saints from earlier periods. 1 

Mention is also made of special convents for Syrian and Monophysite nuns 
from quite an early date. The most famous of them in the district of al- 
Hlrah, is ascribed to Queen Hind, daughter of the Arab King al-Nu f man b. 
al-Mundhir (585-613 a.d.). It repeatedly appeared on the scene of events in 
Arab history and was mentioned by Arab writers such as al-Isfahani, al- 
Shabushti, aKUmari and al-Bakri throughout the Middle Ages. Another, 
located in the Christian quarter of Baghdad, was called the Convent of the 
Virgins. Both al-Shabushti and Bar Hebrasus referred to its existence in the 
tenth and eleventh centuries, and the latter author named it ‘The Sisters’ 
Nunnery’. 2 

Although most of the surviving Jacobite monasteries have disintegrated 
into hostelries and wine distilleries, Jacobite monasticism unquestionably 
had a glorious past and played an eminent role in the preservation of culture 
and the diffusion of education. Cenobitic life was the general pattern, though 
hermits continued to dwell in caves in complete seclusion. The mountains 
around famous monasteries were dotted with them. The monasterv itself 
was of necessity a fortified settlement with high walls. It contained chapels, 
refectories, libraries, mills, bakeries, distilleries, workshops, store-rooms, 
water wells, stables, gardens and cells for monks. Each monastery was in¬ 
variably a self-sufficient unit, and many convents were real centres of 

1 A good account of a recent visit to this monastery is given in Leroy, pp. 233-43. 

2 Al-Shabushti, pp. 70, 157, 230, 245-6. The same author makes a rather obscene literary 
reference (p. 69) to another convent of virgins at a place called al-Hadirah, near Tekrit 
on the Tigris. 


Under the Caliphate 1 

On the eve of the Arab conquest of Syria and the Middle East, the Jacobite 
Church, like the Nestorian, had become illegal, and its priesthood had been 
outlawed. The Greek, or Melkite, Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, the sole 
church prelate approved by the Byzantine emperor, and his Chalcedonian 
bishops and clergy were the only clerics authorized by the state. The Nes- 
torians had long disappeared beyond the Byzantine frontiers and were safe 
from imperial wrath within Persia. The Monophysites, on the other hand, 
still the majority in Syria, had been rigorously pursued for their activities and 
driven underground as demonstrated in the story of Jacob Baradacus. With 
the coming of the Arabs, the picture underwent a complete change. The 
followers of Muhammad in those early decades knew little or nothing of the 
differences of the Christian sects, though they recognized the ‘People of the 
Book’, to whom they promised protection and offered safe-conduct as long 
as they did not interfere with Islam and its invading armies and paid the taxes. 
The new state’s interest in newly conquered Christian territory was chiefly 
limited to peaceful co-existence with the Dhimmi subjects and the regular 
levy of two forms of taxation: first the Kharaj , or land tax, imposed equally 
on Muslim and Christian subjects without discrimination; and second, the 
Ji^yah, or capitation, that is, the poll-tax paid only by the Christians, originally 
estimated at one gold dinar per head in lieu of military service. This varied 
at a later date in conformity with the status of the individual, though it was 
customarily restricted to able-bodied men, and exemptions from it were 
extended to women and children as well as priests, monks and aged men. 
Thus Jacobites, Nestorians and Orthodox Christians became one nation 
subject to the same impositions and enjoying the same privileges without 
distinction. The Jacobites under Muslim rule attained a degree of religious 
enfranchisement they had never had with their Byzantine co-religionists. The 

1 L. E. Browne, Eclipse of Christianity in Asia (Cambridge, 1933), pp. 44~^3> contains 
an interesting chapter on ‘Christianity under the Caliphs’; A. S. Tritton, Caliphs and l heir 
Non-Musli/n Subjects (Oxford, 1930); P. K. Ilitti, History of Syria, pp. 517-26. 



early annals of Islam were also marked by the spirit of religious tolerance and 
a strict sense of justice. This was combined with the eagerness of the Arabs 
to profit from the advanced culture and learning of the old established races 
within their dominion, irrespective of religious differences. This healthy 
attitude explains the high place occupied by both Jacobite and Nestorian at 
the court of the caliphs. Another factor also emerges with the unification of 
Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia under the same Arab rule. The lifting of the 
older barriers between the Asiatic territories under Byzantine and Persian 
domination furnished the Jacobites with the opportunity of missionary ex¬ 
pansion eastward in areas where the Nestorians had almost a complete 
monopoly. It is true that the Jacobites were never able to cover the same 
ground as the Nestorians in their missionary activities in Central Asia and the 
Par East. But under the Arabs they undoubtedly began to work with diligence 
in Mesopotamia and Persia even amongst the Nestorians themselves, as will 
be seen from the following survey. On the other hand, it would be a mistake 
to say that the Jacobites had no representation whatever in that area before 
the coming of the Arabs. The first wife and queen of Chosroes II Parviz 
(590-628), the famous Shlrln, was a Jacobite Christian. During the subse¬ 
quent period of strife, the Jacobite monk Marutha (629—49), who witnessed 
the end of Sassanid rule, was raised to the metropolitan dignity of Tekrit 
and had fifteen suffragans in Persia and Mestopotamia. It is true that the 
Nestorians enjoyed special favour with both the Persian rulers and their 
Arab successors. Indeed the Nestorian catholicos was the only head of a 
Christian church to be seated in the capital of that new empire. Neverthe¬ 
less, the new status of the Jacobite church made it possible for it to flourish 
and expand under the pax arabica beyond the Syrian border into old Persian 
territories. This is the background against which the long-oppressed Jacobite 
church functioned under the caliphate. At first it had its brilliant moments of 
progress and prosperity during the early centuries of Arab rule, until the 
Crusaders tipped the balance of peace in the Holy Land and the whole Middle 
East. It would be an error to contend that there had been no Christian per¬ 
secutions before that time. As a rule sporadic antagonism to the Christians 
was not a set policy in the early Islamic polity but rather depended on the 
whim of the ruler in office. The Crusade was possibly the decisive factor in 
the alienation of the Muslim from the older spirit of fellowship with his 
Christian neighbour. Following this, the position of the Eastern churches and 
communities, including the Jacobites, greatly deteriorated. The later Middle 
Ages proved to be the end of their glory and their ancient vitality. Their 
theological acumen and the Syriac literary genius disappeared from exis¬ 
tence. Henceforward a poor, oppressed and shrinking minority, they lived 
on memories of their past heritage. 


First Three Centuries 

From the seventh to the tenth centuries Jacobite history, though not as 
glowing as that of the Nestorians, whose scholars thronged the Abbasid 
Academy of Dar al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) beginning with Hunayn ibn 
Ishaq and his family, had its brighter side and new orientations. The need for 
theological controversy and Biblical exegesis which marked the Byzantine 
period and the urge to defend Monophysitism against Greek Chalcedonian 
professions was not pressing under the Arabs. Hence the Jacobites - and 
this also applies to the Nestorians - could direct their creative writing, 
whether in Syriac or Arabic letters, to the subjects of hagiography, history, 
astronomy, science and medicine. It may be noticed, however, that as 
Arabic gained momentum, Syriac waned until in the end it became more or 
less a liturgical language. 

As will be seen, most of the Jacobite worthies were not patriarchs who 
were invariably engrossed in schisms and struggles for survival. The first 
really great Jacobite divine of this period is Marutha, 1 metropolitan of 
Tekrit and, from 629 to his death in 649 after the Arab conquest, he was the 
first to bear the title ‘Maphrian of the East’, whose ecclesiastical jurisdiction 
covered the area from al-HIrah in the Arabian Peninsula to Persia and even 
beyond. The maphrianate, now a titular and honorary vestige of the past, was 
an important institution in those days when the patriarchs were in no posi¬ 
tion to care for the distant provinces of the East. The maphrian shouldered 
the task of working in provinces dominated by the strong Nestorian element. 
He had to relieve the patriarch of far-flung responsibilities and was em¬ 
powered to nominate his own suffragans. Marutha was equal to the spirited 
Nestorian, Barsauma, in the defence of Monophysitism in Persia and Meso¬ 
potamia. To him is ascribed an epistle he is said to have written at the request 
of the Jacobite Patriarch John I (631-48), 2 who according to Bar Hebrseus 
translated the first Gospel into Arabic at the instigation of the Arab Amir 
f Amr b. Sa r ad. It was also in John’s patriarchate that Bishop Severus 
Sebokht (d. 667) of the convent of Kenneshre 3 excelled in the study of 

1 Marutka, a native of Persia born in the village of Beth Nuhadra, became a monk at 
the Convent of Zakki or Zacchacus at Callinicus (al-Raqqah), where he spent twenty 
years, then moved to the rich literary and theological centre of the Convent of Mar 
Mattai at Mosul after a period spent at the Edcssenc College. W. Wright, A Short History 
of Syriac Literature (London, 1894), p. 136; Assemani, Bib/. Orient. , I, 174-95; A. Baum- 
stark, Geschichte der Syrischen Literatur (Bonn, 1922), p. 245; R. Duval, La Litterature 
Syriaque (Paris, 1900), p. 375; J. B. Chabot, Litterature Syriaque (Paris, 1934), pp. 81-2. 

2 Wright, p. 139; Chabot, p. 82; Duval, p. 374. Often called ‘John of the Sedras’ owing 
to the fact that he is better known as the author of several important homilies or ‘sedras’. 
He also planned a Syriac liturgy. 

3 That is, ‘Eagle’s Nest’, situated on the left bank of the Euphrates, founded by John 


Hellenistic philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and theology. He was 
undoubtedly one of the pioneers of Hellenistic-Syriac science. Amongst his 
works are a treatise on the syllogisms in Aristotle’s Analytica Priora and 
others on the astrolabe and on the zodiac. The monastery of Kenneshre be¬ 
came the real Jacobite centre of learning under Severus Sebokht. Most 
eminent amongst the Kenneshre graduates in the seventh century was 
Jacob of Edessa (63 3-708) - bishop, theologian, exegete, grammarian, 
philosopher and historian. He has occasionally been described as the Jerome * 1 
of the Jacobite church and is reckoned one of its most prolific writers. Apart 
from a complete revision of the Old Testament and extensive Bible com¬ 
mentaries, he made a tremendous contribution to the stabilization of the 
Syriac liturgy. After a definitive revision of the ancient Liturgy of St James, 
he composed a new anaphora, a baptismal rite, the solemnization of matri¬ 
mony, and the calendar of Church offices. Among his translations from the 
Greek was one of Severus of Antioch’s PLomilicB cathedrales, His grammar of 
the Mesopotamian language embodied extensive research in the reform of 
Syriac linguistics and orthography. His lost chronicle, planned in continua¬ 
tion to Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia ecclesiaslica , was used by both Michael 
the Syrian and Bar Hebrseus. A few disjointed and mutilated sheets are all 
that remain from a monumental work that would have given us much know¬ 
ledge of this obscure time. 2 His numerous ‘Epistles to John the Stylite of 
Litharba’ (al-Atharib, near Aleppo) and to other contemporary personalities 
throw much light on the problems of his time. Towards the end of his life, 
Jacob embarked on a monumental study of the creation and creatures entitled 
Hexameron , 3 which he left unfinished. This was conceived as the second part 
of an encyclopaedia of theological knowledge, the first part being a work called 
Causa causarum , attributed to him, though bearing an inscription citing only 
a bishop of Edessa as author. In its known form, the work is incomplete, 
but parts of it represent a consensus of all the scientific notions of the age. 
The author describes a kind of utopia in which people of all faiths are re¬ 
united in one universal religion, and he systematically avoids statements 
which may antagonize either Jew or Muslim. His sympathy with the mystic 
philosophy of the Arabs is also noticeable. 

In addition to his immense literary career, Jacob, was a driving power in 
the reformist church activities of his day. He tried to enforce rigid discipline 
in the convents of his diocese. When the monks revolted against him the 

Bar Aphthonia, who fled from western Syria at the time of Justin’s persecutions in 521; 
Chabot, pp. 73, 82-3; Baumstark, p. 246; Wright, p. 138, apparently misplaces it. 

1 Wright, p. 143. 

2 Ibid., p. 148; last to he mentioned in the extant folios arc Hcraclius I of Constantinople, 
Ardasher III of Persia and Abu Bakr, the first Orthodox caliph. 

3 'The Syriac Al-Aksamiran , that is, ‘the six days’, meaning the Creation. 


Jacobite patriarch Julian sided with them. So the bishop took a copy of the 
old canons and burnt it at the gate of the patriarchal seat, declaring that 
he would rather destroy what the patriarch regarded as superfluous. He then 
left his diocese and moved from monastery to monastery for years, teaching, 
writing and preaching until his death on the eve of his return to Edessa in 
708. The Jacobites often call him philoponus - the ‘laborious’ and the ‘inter¬ 
preter’. 1 

It remained for another to complete the Hexameron. This task was under¬ 
taken by George, 2 bishop of the Arabs (686-724) and Jacob’s fellow-disciple 
at Kenneshre. At his episcopal seat in Akoula (the Arab al-Kufah) he also 
wrote numerous theological and philosophical treatises. He defended Mono- 
physite doctrines from Nestorian incursions and wrote epistles on chrono¬ 
logy and astronomy. The modern French writer Ernest Renan praises his 
work on Aristotle’s Organon as incomparable amongst Syriac commentaries 
in importance, method, and exactitude. 3 

Apparently the Jacobite Church was making gains in the held of evangeli¬ 
zation at that time. Undoubtedly the most important instance was that of 
Elias, a Syrian orthodox Diophysite converted to Monophysitism after the 
study of the works of Severus of Antioch. He was subsequently elected as 
patriarch of the Jacobites (709-24), and wrote an apology in defence of his 
conversion in response to an epistle from Leo, Melkite bishop of Harran. 4 
Another patriarch, Kyriakos of Tekrit (793-817), worked on winning the 
Julianist Armenians. In the reign of his successor, Dionysius of Tellmahre 
(817-45), progress was impeded by a schism arising within the church from 
an argument over ‘the heavenly bread’ in which the patriarch’s view was 
contested by the monks. Abraham of the convent of Qartamln, was accord¬ 
ingly elected anti-patriarch by the malcontents, leading to humiliating scenes 
before the Muslim authorities. When the storm began to calm down, Diony¬ 
sius embarked on a vast tour of visitations in order to appease the congrega¬ 
tion and meanwhile to procure privileges for the church by following the 
courts of the rulers before whom he wanted to lodge his appeals. Between 
825 and 827 he went to Egypt to procure a letter from Caliph al-Ma’mun’s 
envoy, ‘Abdallah ibn Tahir, to his brother Muhammad, who had ordered the 
destruction of all newly built religious foundations in Edessa. In 829 he 

1 Baumstark, pp. 248-56. Chabot, pp. 84-8; Wright, pp. 141-54; Duval, pp. 375-8. 

2 Baumstark, pp. 257-8; Wright, pp. 156-9. 

3 Chabot, p. 88. 

4 It is interesting to note that in the interval between Elias and Kyriakos, the Syriac 
literary activity is represented, according to Bar Hcbiaeus, by Thcophilus bar Thomas of 
Edessa, a Chalcedonian according to Dionysius and a Maronite in Bar Hcbrxus, but cited 
under the Jacobites by Wright, pp. 163-4, and Chabot, p. 91. He is known to have been 
an astronomer of distinction highly esteemed at al-Mahdi’s court. He died in 785. Refer¬ 
ences have been made to several astronomical tracts by him, a lost chronicle, and a 
complete Syriac version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey , which seems almost incredible. 


went to Ba gh dad, then to Damascus, in pursuit of an audience with the caliph 
on behalf of the Bashmuric Copts, who were then in open rebellion against 
Arab rule. His intercession was in vain, since the caliph and his general, 
Afshln, had succeeded in crushing the rebellion. While in Egypt the patriarch 
visited its antiquities, obelisks, pyramids and the Nilometer. In 835 he 
revisited Baghdad to render homage to al-Ma’mun’s successor, the new 
Caliph al Mu'tasim, and met the Christian king of Nubia, who was there for 
the same purpose. During his pontificate the church was torn by internal 
dissensions and suffered external afflictions from Muslim rulers. Dionysius 
is known as the author of a universal history of the period from the acces¬ 
sion of Emperor Maurice in 5 82 to the death of Theophilus in 842, a work of 
capital importance for the events of the Syrian churches, utilized by Michael 
the Syrian and subsequent historians but unfortunately surviving only in a 
fraction of its original form. 1 

The period under review closes with a somewhat noteworthy Jacobite, 
Moses bar Kepha, who died in 903 at the age of ninety. His fields were theo¬ 
logy, exegesis, homiletics and philosophy. His Hexcemeron was probably 
inspired by Jacob of Edessa. The Disputation against Heresies and a treatise 
on the sects are interesting. A commentary on the Old and New Testaments, 
another on the works of Gregory Nazienzen, two liturgies (of which one is 
apocryphal), and a work of Aristotle’s Dialectics bear his name. 2 

The church, in spite of its growing burdens under the Muslim rulers, 
managed to retain a great measure of autonomy. As a rule the caliph’s inter¬ 
ference ended with the ratification of patriarchal election and the periodic 
reimbursement of the Kharaj and the Ji^ya taxation. The Christians were the 
educated members of the community and thus made themselves necessary in 
key positions at the Abbasid court in Baghdad. Their libraries and their 
schools and their scholars, of whom the above-mentioned Jacobites must 
be taken into account, were the normal channels through which the fruits of 
Hellenism found their way to Arabic culture. The Christians as a whole 

1 Baumstark, p. 275; Chabot, pp. 92-3; Duval, pp. 389-90. Wright, pp. 200-3, gives the 
following details of the ‘Annals’ of Dionysius known to Assemani (Bib/. Orient ., II, 72-7), 
who had published an extract therefrom. Written after the manner of John of Asia, the 
work has a longer and a shorter redaction. It is divided into four parts. The first covers 
the period from the Creation to Constantine and is based on Eusebius, Julius Africanus, 
the anonymous Chronicon Edessenum, the Syriac Treasure Cave (German tr. Bezold, Die 
Schat^hohle, 1883), the Seven Sleepers (Guidi, Testi orientali ined. sopra i Sette Dormienti di 
Efeso, R. Acad, dci Lincei, Atti, s. 3, vol. 12, 1884), and Josephus’/w/r^ Wars. The second 
part, from Constantine to Theodosius II, follows Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History. The third, 
from Theodosius II to Justin II, follows John of Asia and incorporates Joshua the Stylite 
and the Epistle of Beth Arsham on the Himyarite Christians. The fourth part, to 158 
A.11./774-5 a.d., is his own from documents, oral reports, and eyewitnesses. Assemani, 
Bibl. Orient ., IF, 98-116, sums up the work with an excerpt from the last part known to be 
in the Vatican. 

2 Baumstark, pp. 281-2; Chabot, pp. 95-6; Wright, pp. 207-11; Duval, pp. 391-2. 


enjoyed a fair measure of freedom of thought and action under the early 
Abbasid caliphs and the Jacobite patriarch became a frequent visitor to the 
court, though the maphrian of Tekrit took care of the Jacobites of that part 
of Mesopotamia and the further Middle East. But only the Nestorian pat¬ 
riarch, or catholicos (the Arabic Jathllq), was allowed to reside in Ba gh dad. 
The Christians also handled much of the mercantile activities in the Arab 
empire, and this increased the wealth of their community and had great effect 
on the church as well as the monastic foundations with their schools and 

Age of Decline 

The clement tolerance of Arab rule did not last forever. Two main cir¬ 
cumstances contributed to the imminent change in their dealings with the 
Christian communities in their dominions. First, the continuous growth in 
the education of the Muslim rendered the caliphate less and less dependent 
on Christian functionaries. Thus we find increasing instances of wholesale 
Christian dismissals from office by the caliphs and sultans, sometimes with 
and often without any conceivable pretext beyond religion. Secondly, the 
decline of the pure Arab and the steady weakness of the caliphate against the 
rise in influence of non-Arab elements became overpowering in the Islamic 
polity. The origins of this state of things may be traced back to the reign of 
Caliph al-Mu'tasim (833-42), Harun al-Rashid’s son from a Turkish slave. 
In order to relieve himself of the influence of the Arab soldiers of Khurasan 
to whom the Abbasids owed the caliphate, al-Mu f tasim founded a new 
bodyguard of four thousand Turks and Turcomans from Central Asia. 
The caliph miscalculated the outcome of his decision. Even in his own life¬ 
time they became so aggressive in the capital that he found it necessary to 
remove the seat of government north to Samarra, 1 on the Tigris. In the fol¬ 
lowing century their influence kept growing until they literally seized most of 
the power and wrested the title of sultan from the caliphs, who became 
figureheads by the end of the eleventh century. Like the Barbarians before the 
fall of the Roman empire, they barbarized the caliphate with their ignorance 
and bigotry. Their treatment of the Christians and their behaviour in the 
holy places helped to precipitate the Crusades. They formed their own dynas¬ 
ties, of which the Saljuq was the most redoubtable, and their unbridled 
oppression directly affected the life of the Jacobite church in upper 

1 This is an old Assyrian name which was transformed in Arabic to Surra man ra'a y 
that is, ‘Pleased is he w T ho sees it’. The contemporary twisted the sense by diverting the 
pleasure to him who sees Ba gh dad well rid of the Turks (Hitti, Arabs , p. 466). 


Mesopotamia, Legal restrictions, overlooked in the early centuries, were 
frequently enforced from the tenth century onwards. 1 In reality, the 
tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries might aptly be described as the age of 
decline of Syrian Christianity and the fall of Syriac literature. 

We look in vain for a great name in the Jacobite church during the tenth 
century. A certain John son of Maron (d. 1003), a monk of the convent of 
Gubos near Melitene (Malatiya), described as an ‘ocean of wisdom’, com¬ 
pares badly with the older masters of Syriac learning. He wrote an unimpor¬ 
tant treatise on Solomon’s Proverbs, and his real contribution was more as a 
copyist than an author. Still more insignificant and pitiful was the story of 
Mark bar Kiki, who was elevated to the maphrianate of Tekrit under the 
name of Ignatius in 991. His diocesans drove him out of that dignity owing 
to his abusive character, and he apostatized to Islam in 1016. Later, however, 
he recanted and wrote a poem in debased Syriac on his downfall. 2 Nor did 
the eleventh century yield any great names. The historians of Syriac literature 
quote two modest names - Yeshu r bar Shushan (or Jesus bar Susanna) and 
Ignatius, monk of the convent of Mar Aaron. The first became patriarch in 
1058 under the name of John X, was forced to abdicate in the interest of a rival 
in 1064, but he was re-elected in the same year. He died at Amid in 1072 after 
a troubled reign which was symptomatic of the times. He engaged himself in 
a discussion with the Armenians over the use of yeast, oil and salt in the bread 
prepared for holy communion, wrote some liturgical texts and composed four 
Syriac poems on the pillage of Melitene by the Turks. Ignatius became bishop 
of Melitene in 1061 and died in 109 5 after writing an obscure chronicle based 
on Jacob of Edessa and Dionysius of Tellmahre (known only to Michael the 
Syrian). One year after his death the city was sacked by the Turks, and his 
successor, Bishop John (original name, Sa c id bar Sabhuni), was massacred 
along with other Jacobites. 3 

The sterility of the Jacobite church and of Jacobite Syriac literature con¬ 
tinued until the middle of the twelfth century, when suddenly a revival took 
place with the appearance of three names of universal fame, indeed the last 
great names to be encountered in their annals. These were Dionysius Bar 
Sallbi, Michael the Syrian and Gregorius Bar Hebneus - the most illus¬ 
trious in later mediaeval Jacobite history. 

Dionysius bar Sallbi, 4 a native of Melitene, was enthroned as bishop of 
Mar f ash (Germanicia), to which the Jacobite Patriarch Athanasius VIII 
annexed Mabbog in 1154. Then he was transferred in 1166 by Michael I to the 

1 See note from Browne (pp. 46-7) and al-Mawardi (Les Statuts Gouvernmentaux , tr. 
Fagnan) quoted on Nestorians. 

2 Chabot, p. 115; Baumstark, p. 291; Wright, pp. 222-5; Duval, pp. 396-7. 

3 Baumstark, pp. 291-3; Chabot, pp. 120-1; Wright, pp. 225-7; Duval, pp. 396-7. 

4 Flis original name was George Bar Sallbi, and the new name of Dionysius was given 
to him when he became bishop. 


more substantial diocese of Amid (Diyarbekr), where he remained until his 
decease in 1171. His works embrace a wide variety of subjects and he wrote at 
very great length. They include vast commentaries on the Old and New 
Testaments, 1 and others on the Centuries of Evagrius and on Fathers and 
Doctors of the church. Fie compiled a Compendium of T/jeo/ogy, wrote a 
treatise on the providence of God, and a multitude of tracts on the Nicene 
Creed, the Jacobite confession and many other topics. lie left a copious 
treatise against heresies including the faiths of Muhammadans, Jews, 
Nestorians and Chalcedonian Diophysites. Apparently, he stabilized the 
Syriac liturgy with an interpretation, two more anaphone and several pre- 
anaphoral prayers, known as sedras. His homilies are quite numerous. In 
the field of philosophy he was chiefly occupied with a number of books from 
Aristotle. He composed several poems dealing with the Muslim capture of 
Edessa by Zangi in 1144, the fall of MaFash to the Armenians (who seized 
him therewith as a prisoner of war) in 1156, and on the maphrian who fell 
and married a Muslim woman. He is said to have written a chronicle of his 
own times. No wonder he has been described as the star of the twelfth 
century in Jacobite history. 2 

His other remarkable contemporary was Michael the Syrian, surnamed the 
Great. 3 Born at Melitene in 1126, he embraced monasticism at an early age 
in the renowned convent of Barsuama in the neighbourhood of his native 
town. At the age of thirty he became an archimandrite. Then he resisted the 
temptation of preferment to the bishopric of Amid (Diyarbekr) in 1165 for 
fear of losing the solitude of contemplation and the freedom to follow his 
literary pursuits. But destiny had a heavier burden and a greater career in 
store for him. On the decease of the Jacobite Patriarch Athanasius VIII 
in the following year, Michael was elected to succeed him at the unusually 
early age of thirty-one. He remained at the helm until his death in 1199, 
during a period in which the Middle East was the scene of momentous 
events. It was the age of Saladin and the Third Crusade (1189-92). Michael 
appears to have been in amicable relationship with the Latin Kingdom of 
Jerusalem and the Crusaders; but, unlike the Armenians and the Maronites, 
he remained impervious to the hazards of proselytizing Rome and of sub¬ 
mission to the papacy. 

1 Wright, pp. 246-7; Chabot, pp. 123-4. The order in the O.T. is: Pentateuch, Job, 
Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Twelve Minor Prophets, and 
Ecclesiasticus. The order of the N.T. is thus: the four Gospels, St John’s Revelation, Acts 
of the Apostles, the seven Apostolic Epistles, and St Paul’s fourteen Epistles. The O.T. 
books usually have two commentaries: the one material or corporal, and the other 
spiritual or mystic, otherwise allegorical or symbolic. 

“ Baumstark, pp. 295-8; Wright, pp. 246-50; Chabot, pp. 123-5; Duval, pp. 399-400. 

3 Also known as Michael the Elder, son of the priest Elias, to distinguish him from his 
nephew Michael the Younger; Wright, p. 250, n. 3. 


The patriarch’s life had, however, been embittered by the treacherous 
behaviour ot his own disciple Theodore bar Wahbun 1 in regard to the 
relations between the Jacobite and Byzantine churches. In 1170 the Emperor 
Manuel despatched a certain Theorianus with special letters to the Armenian 
catholicos and the Jacobite patriarch for the reunion of the Eastern churches 
with Constantinople. Michael objected to granting audience to the imperial 
emissary and sent John of Kaisun to confer with him in a preliminary way 
at Qal r at al-Rum in Cilicia. Apparently it was agreed to hold a conference 2 
in which the representatives of the churches might have the opportunity 
to discuss the problems at issue, and Mdchael appointed Theodore as the 
Jacobite delegate. Later, Theodore accused the patriarch of Chalcedonian 
leanings and ultimately got himself elected anti-patriarch at Amid (Diyar- 
bekr) in 1180. Michael, who happened to be in Antioch at the time, acted 
swiftly by seizing his opponent, whom he deposed and imprisoned at the 
convent of Barsauma. Theodore managed to flee to Damascus in the hope of 
placing the case before Saladin. Doubting the sultan’s reactions, he decided 
to change his course to Cilicia, where he joined the Armenian catholicos 
Gregorios Degha and King Leo, who reinstated him as patriarch of the 
Jacobites within their realm. Michael’s tribulations came to an end only with 
the death of Bar Wahbun in 1193. Michael was indeed a fine scholar and a 
great linguist. He was conversant with Greek, Armenian and Arabic in 
addition to his own native Syriac. On the authority of Bar Hebrseus, he 
wrote his case against his adversaries in the Arabic tongue. 

In spite of all those vexatious occurrences and the weight of his patriarchal 
duties, Michael must have laboured day and night in writing the admirable 
works he left to the church. 3 His most valuable and most formidable literary 
contribution is, of course, his Chronicle , long famous in Europe through an 
abridged Armenian version 4 until the discovery of the complete Syriac text, 
now in print with a French rendering. 5 The Chronicle begins with the Crea¬ 
tion and ends with the year 1195. Approximately half of his material was 
compiled from sources and documents mostly lost. The author cites many 

1 Baumstark, pp. 300-1; Chabot, pp. 127-8; Wright, pp. 253-4; Duval, p. 401. 

2 The Greek Acts of this Conference have been found and published in Migne, P.G., 
CXXXIII; cf. Chabot, p. 128. 

3 According to the testimony of Bar Hebrasus; cf. Chabot, p. 125. 

4 The Armenian version, begun by the Vartabed David, was completed by the priest 
Isaac in 1248. Sections of it were published by Delaurier in Journal Asiatique (1848), pp. 
281 et seq., and (1849), pp. 315 et seq. Afterwards the whole translation was made by 
V. Langlois, Chronique de Michel le Syrien (Paris, 1868). Michael’s works were popular in 
Armenia from an early date, and a third person, the Vartabed Vartan, attempted to trans¬ 
late the rest of his works into Armenian. Cf. Wright, p. 252. 

5 The unique Syriac text, dated 1598, was discovered by Mgr. Rahmani at Urfa (Edessa). 
Edited with a French tr. by J. B. Chabot, Chronique de Michel le Syrien , Patriarche Jacobite 
d’Antioche , 1166-99, 4 vols. (Paris, 1899-1925). 


of those sources both in his preface and in the course of his text. 1 He intended 
to follow the example of Eusebius in the original plan of the book by divid¬ 
ing his material into three categories: sacerdotal, temporal and miscellaneous 
- each in a special column from right to left. But he had to discard that system 
at a later date in favour of a unique and continuous text where his Syrian and 
ecclesiastical interests were apparent. In using the sources, his primary task 
was one of co-ordination rather than critical selection. But he undoubtedly 
succeeded in handling the material at his disposal with integrity, though it 
would be unfair to expect of him the critical method of another age. The 
work ends with a number of appendices 2 in which Michael compiled data 
pertaining to the Eastern churches and extensive lists of the Jacobite 
patriarchs, including a note on each of them since Severus of Antioch (512), 
as well as the bishops consecrated by them since Kyriakos (792). 

Apart from the Chronicle , Michael wrote numerous other books, mainly 
of an ecclesiastical character. He prepared a liturgy in which prayers were 
arranged in alphabetical order, and he revised the Pontifical and ritual of 
ordinations. He also brought together the scattered and disjointed accounts 
of the life of Mar Abhai, a legendary fourth-century Nicxan bishop, and 
re-edited the whole in consecutive form. His aim was probably the defence 
of the cult of sacred relics. It must be remembered that Michael remained 
an inveterate enemy of iconoclasm and extolled the reverence of Christians 
towards icons and relics alike. In common with most notable Jacobite 
writers, he also left several prayers, (or sedras ), of which some appear under 
his name in prayer-books. Among his homilies, one is devoted to John of 
Mardin and another to St Barsauma. He refers in his Chronicle to other works, 
including a Profession of the Faith addressed to Emperor Manuel, a Refutation 
of the Errors of Mark ibn Ounbar (a schismatic Coptic priest who is presumed 
to have fallen under the spell of the Msallian movement). He also wrote a 
treatise against the Albigenses on the occasion of an invitation to the third 
Lateran Council held in 1179, as well as a panegyric of Dionysius bar 
Salibi, and a poem on the constancy of a Christian young woman whom the 
Muslims failed to convert to their religion. 3 

1 In the first six books, Michael relied on Eusebius for history from the Creation to 
Constantine. Then he used Socrates and Theodorct for the years 325-431 a.d., Zaccharias 
Rhetor for 431-505, Cyrus of Batna for 565-82, John of Asia for 325-582, Jacob of 
Edessa and John of Litharba for 325-726, Dionysius of Tcllmahre for 582-842, Ignatius 
of Melitene for 325-1118, Basil of Edessa for 1118-43, an d finally John of Kaisun and 
Dionysius Bar Salibi for his contemporary history. The whole work comprises thirty-one 
books divided into many chapters. 

2 A total of six appendices ( Chronique , IV, 427-524). The episcopal lists contain 950 
names, mostly unknown (Chabot, E/ 7 /. Syr., pp. 126-7). These lists have been used ex¬ 
tensively by Honigmann in his two books ( Fveqnes et Bvecbes Monophysites and Convent de 

3 Chabot, E/ 7 /. Syr., p. 127. 


As a historian Michael had a thirteenth-century successor who continued 
his good work. The unique manuscript of that valuable continuation, found 
in private hands at Constantinople, happened to be a mutilated fourteenth- 
century copy of a lost original reaching back to 1234. The author was prob¬ 
ably a monk of the convent of Barsauma, still the seat of the Jacobite 
patriarchate at that date. He planned his chronicle in two separate sections 
both as a secular and as an ecclesiastical history. 1 

With the coming of the thirteenth century, it will be noted, the process of 
Arabicizing the Jacobite people had made such progress that only few felt 
the need or urge to use Syriac any more as a vehicle for literary writing. 
Arabic, hitherto confined to official state proceedings, now made its in¬ 
cursions into the fields of the intellect and of literature. The last of the sreat 
Jacobite writers, Gregory Abul-Faraj, surnamed Bar Hebneus, 2 wrote both 
in Syriac and in Arabic with equal facility and felicity. His command of the 
Arabic tongue was at the opposite pole from his surprising ignorance of 
Greek. 0 In subsequent ages Syriac was restricted to its present function as 
the liturgical language of the Church, and its long-standing impact on crea¬ 
tive thought faded away. 

In conclusion, however, we must outline the life and work of Bar Hebrteus, 
a great Jacobite churchman and the last entitled to claim a lofty place in 
Syriac science and letters. Born of Jewish ancestry in 1226 at Melitene 
(Malatiya), he died at Maraghah in Azerbaijan in the summer of 1286. As 
a youth he must have witnessed the horrors of the invasions of Hulagu 
Khan’s Mongol hordes, since his family fled from its native city in 1243, 
shortly after the fall of Melitene (Malatiya). They settled down at Antioch, 
still in the hands of the Franks during the Crusade period. It was there that 
he took holy orders and went to Tripoli to study philosophy and medicine. 
Then the Jacobite Patriarch Ignatius II consecrated him as bishop of Gubos 
(near his old home town Melitene) in 1246. He was only twenty years old. 
In the following year he was transferred to the adjoining see of Lacabane 
(Laqabhln), also in the Malatiya district. In 1252, he became involved in one 
of the recurring Jacobite schisms: Ignatius II died in that year, and the patri¬ 
archate was claimed by two rivals - Dionysius (Aaron Anjur) and John bar 
Madani. 4 Bar Hebrasus espoused the cause of the first, who transferred him to 

1 Chabot, Syr., pp. 129-30. Both text and French translation of the Chronique 

Anonyme de 1234 have been published by Chabot (Paris 1916-20). 

1 he Syriac Bar 'Ibraya and Arabic Ibn al-Ibri , that is, ‘son of the Hebrew’, thus de¬ 
noting his ancestry. His lather, a certain Aaron, was a converted Jew who became estab¬ 
lished as a physician in Melitene. 

3 Wright, p. 266, says that Bar Hebneus devoted his boyhood to learning Greek and 
Arabic; but Chabot, jL///. Syr., p. 133, rightly notes that all his references to the Greek 
authors were made second-hand because he did not know any Greek at all. It would appear 
that by that time, most of the Hellenic heritage had found its way into Arabic. 

1 Bar Madani was maphrian of Tekrit. Owing to his unattractive personality, he was 


the diocese of Aleppo in the hope that he might gain its congregation for his 
cause. But apparently their loyalty to Bar Madani was too great, and they 
drove Bar Hebrteus out of their city, whereupon he retired to the convent of 
Barsauma near his chosen patriarch. Ultimately, however, he returned to 
Aleppo in 1258, where he stayed until the next patriarch, Ignatius III, 
elevated him to the maphrianate of the Orient in 1264. i his he retained until 
his death in 1286. For the last twenty years of his life, he dedicated himself 
with unflinching assiduity to a double cause. In the first place, he committed 
himself not only to the service of his own community but also to all Chris¬ 
tians, irrespective of their profession or their creed. In the second place, he 
devoted a great deal of his energy to the fulfilment of a literary and scientific 
project with few equivalents in the history of authorship. 1 lis decease was an 
occasion of public mourning, and we are told that even Greeks, Armenians 
and Nestorians marched side by side with the Jacobites at his funeral. Jlis 
remains were later transferred to the monastery of Mar Mattai near Mosul, 
where they rest to the present day. 1 

As to his literary output, even a brief survey would leave the mind won¬ 
dering how a man could cover such a wide range in the span of threescore 
years of a troubled existence. Bar Hebrxus was a man of many-sided interest 
and encyclopaedic knowledge. Historian, Biblical exegete, theologian, 
canonical jurist, philosopher, grammarian, poet, man of letters and science, 
astronomer, physician and encyclopaedist - he was a true forerunner of the 
aomo universale of the Renaissance. It may be hazardous to contend that he had 
his own system of philosophy based on the universality of knowledge and, 
like Ramon Lull and Roger Bacon in mediaeval Europe, set himsell the task 
of covering its first and last principles in Syriac and Arabic. But the proposi¬ 
tion is nevertheless worthy of consideration. 

In the world of scholarship Bar Hebrseus’ fame chiefly rests on his con¬ 
tribution to historical studies. He attempted the compilation of universal 
history in three chronicles: the Cbronicon syriacun.r and the Cbronicon ecclesiasti- 
cu?n 3 written in Syriac, and what may be described as the Cbronicon arabicuw , 

forced by the people of Mosul to leave the city, lie retired to Baghdad, where he was in 
favour with three Jacobite brothers, Shams-al-Daulah, Pakhr-al-Daulah and I aj-al- 
Daulah, the sons of a certain Thomas — all physicians of influence at the court of Caliph 
al-Mustansir. He returned on his election to the patriarchate, but was never able to reign 
freely until the Anti-patriarch Dionysius was assassinated at the Convent of Bar$auma 
in 1261. He died in 1263. Details of those scandalous events arc given by Bar Hebraeus; 
cf. R. Duval, op. cit., p. 407. 

1 Assemani, Bibl. Orient ., II, 244 et seq.; Duval, pp. 408-11; Wright, pp. 265-81; 
Baumstark, pp. 312-20; Chabot, Litt. Sjr., pp. 131-7. 

2 Inadequately edited with a Latin translation for the first time by P. J. Bruns and G. G. 
Kirsch, Bar Hebrai Cbron. Ayr., 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1789). Syriac text more satisfactorily 
re-edited by P. Bedjan (Paris, 1890), but without translation. 

3 Edited with Latin translation and notes by J. B. Abbeloos and 1 h. J. Lamy, Cbron. 
eccles ., 2 vols. in 3 (Louvain, 1872-7). 


which he composed towards the end of his life in forceful Arabic style under 
the title Hpitome oj the History of Dynasties 1 (NLukhtasar Tarikh al-Duival ). 
1 Ie must have availed himself of a multitude of Syriac, Arabic and Persian 
sources already assembled by his predecessor Michael the Great, to which he 
added many acquisitions. The author covered the whole history of mankind 
from the Creation, and, for all the early annals, he summed up Michael the 
Syrian’s Chronicle. The secular history from the Creation to his day is some¬ 
what general in character, and the ecclesiastical history from Aaron to the 
post-apostolic age is brief, but then it becomes the story of the patriarchate of 
Antioch up to Severus, being narrowed down to the Monophysite and 
Jacobite offshoot to the year 1285-86. It ends with an account of the maphria- 
nate and maphrians of Tekrit, with careful notices on the Nestorian pat¬ 
riarchs. 2 The chronicle was continued to 1288 by his own brother Barsauma, 
who had succeeded him as maphrian and who compiled a list of thirty 
monumental works bearing Bar Hebraeus’ name. An anonymous author of 
less distinction made a second continuation of the same chronicle to 1496. 
In the Arabic compendium Bar Hebrasus enriched the work with additional 
data on Islamic dynasties in response to a request from his Muslim friends. 3 

As a Biblical exegete, he compiled a voluminous repertory of glosses and 
commentaries on the Scriptural texts of the Peshitta, Hexapla and Harklean 
versions with innumerable quotations from Athanasius, Basil, Gregory 
Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Hippolytus, Origen, Philoxenus, Severus of 
Antioch, Jacob of Edessa, Moses bar Kepha and Yeshudad of Marw the 
Nestorian. He used all those ecclesiastical sources in Syriac or Arabic, and 
his erudition was phenomenal. Owing to the decline in the knowledge of 
Syriac, he enriched the work with many remarks on Syriac grammar and 
lexicography together with the precise pronunciation of words and dialectic 
differences between Nestorian and Jacobite. He gave his study the title 
Storehouse of Secrets 4 (Horreum mysterioruni) which betrays, like most of the 

1 Arabic text without trans. ed. A. Salhani (Beirut, 1890). Earlier edn. with Latin tr. 
E. Pococke, Historia compendiosa Dynastiarum (Oxford, 1663). See also E. A. Wallis Budge, 
The Chronography of Bar Hebraus , 2 vols. (London, 1932). 

2 Chabot, Lift. Syr., p. 132, states that for his material on the Nestorian patriarchs he 
used freely a work in Arabic by a twelfth-century Nestorian writer called Mari ibn 
Sulaiman. This work, Kitab al-Aiajdal (Book of the Tower), extant in two vols. in the 
Vatican collection, is often wrongly ascribed to f Amr ibn Matta of Tlrhan. The MS is 
a copy dated 1401 and is theological, dogmatical and historical; Wright, pp. 255-6. 

3 Bar Hebrams knew the older outstanding Arab historians such as al-Waqidi (d. ca. 
823), al-Baladhuri (d. 892), al-Tabari (d. 923), al-Mas udi (d. c. 956), al-Kindi (d. 961), 
al-Quda i (d. 1062), and probably ibn al-Athir (d. 1234) who had written in the early 
decades of the same century. 

4 Preface of work published by Cardinal Wieseman (Rome, 1828), and numerous 
sections produced as doctoral theses in Germany; see lists in Baumstark, pp. 314-15. 
Definitive ed. and English tr. by M. Sprengling and W. S. Graham, Bar Hebrews Scholia 
on the Old testament (Chicago, 1931), based mainly on the oldest text in Florence dated 
1278. Cf. Chabot, Litt. Syr., pp. 133-4. 


titles of his other books, the influence of the system of Arab authors. 1 He 
dealt with Monophysite theology at great length in two other books: Lamp 
of the Sanctuary and Book of Rays , 2 the latter summing up the basic arguments 
for popular use. His Book of the Dove 3 is an ascetical work intended for the 
guidance of monks and recluses and is based on his own experience, which 
he detailed in an autobiography at the end. 

Canon law claimed his attention, too, since the church under the caliphate 
handled the affairs of its own members. Hence the bishops were the sole 
judges of their congregations in all ecclesiastical matters and to a great extent 
in cases of civil law. He thus compiled what was invaluable to the clergy - 
the Book of Directions, commonly called Nomcanon, which comprised a 
practical guide for all manner of legal usage. 4 

In the field of philosophy he read the Arabs voraciously and translated 
into Syriac numerous philosophical treatises, including ibn SIna’s (Avicenna) 
Book of Directions and Notifications . 5 On logic and dialectics, Bar Hebraeus 
wrote a Book of the Pupils of Lyes. His compendium entitled, Book of Speech and 
Wisdom is a survey of dialectics, physics and metaphysics (which stands for 
theology). He confided the completest Syriac Aristotelian discipline to a 
monumental encyclopaedic work called the Cream of Science , 6 in which he 
presented the sum of knowledge from Arab sources in three large parts. 
The first contained a study of logic, dialectic, rhetoric, art and poetry and all 
allied subjects. The second dealt with physics, the sky and the universe, 
meteors, generation and corruption, minerals, plants, animals, and the 
soul. The third is subdivided into one section devoted to metaphysics (or 
theology) according to Syrians and another comprising ethics, economic and 
political sciences. Owing to the vast nature of the work, he composed an 
abridgement of it called Trade of Trades (Mercatura mercaturarum). 

His knowledge of mathematics and astronomy must have been very 
considerable. He lectured on Euclid at the school of the Mara gh ah Convent 
in 1272. He drew up the Zij, or astronomical tables, much used by the Arabs. 
Then he wrote his definitive treatise on astronomy and cosmography under 
the title Ascent of the Mind , 1 which he adorned with mathematical figures 
and numerous illustrations. 

1 The Arabic system of using flowery rhymed titles without denoting the nature of the 
contents. Another influence of Arabic is the use of the lengthy gloss (Ar. Hashiya, pi. 
Haivashi) so common in Qur’anic commentaries and jurisprudence ( JFiqb ). 

2 Chabot, Lift. Syr., 134. 

3 Re Llvre de la Colo?nbe, ed. P. Bcdjan (Paris, 1898); English tr. A. J. Wcnsinck, Book 
of the Dove (Leiden, 1919); cf. Chabot, op. cit., p. 135. 

4 Chabot, Lit/. Syr., p. 134; Wright, pp. 276-8. 

5 Kitdb al-lshardt wal-Tanbihdt', Wright, p. 270. Sec also A. Baumstark, Gcschichtc dcr 
Syrischen Literatiir (Bonn, 1922), p. 317. 

6 Chabot, op. cit., p. 135; Wright, pp. 269-70. 

7 Pub. by F. Nau, Livrc de Vascension dc Vesprit (Paris, 1899); cf. Chabot, op. cit., pp. 


We must, however, remember that the original vocation of Bar Hebraeus 
was medicine, which he apparently continued to practice even as a prelate. 
He tells us in his ecclesiastical history that he treated in 1263 the Tartar 
‘King of Kings’. He wrote and translated into Syriac and Arabic many books 
on medicine and materia medica. Into Syriac, too, he made an abridged ren¬ 
dering of Dioscorides’ famous treatise De medicamentis simplicibus . He sum¬ 
marized in the same language al-Ghafiqi’s Arabic Book of Simples (Kitab 
al-Adwiyah al-Mufidah). He commented in Arabic on Galen’s De elementis 
and De temperamentis as well as Hippocrates’ Aphorisms . He also published a 
Syriac abridgement and commentary on Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s Arabic Ques- 
tiones medica. He translated into his native tongue most of ibn SIna’s al- 
Oanum fi al-Tibb and wrote a comprehensive medical treatise without a 
special title, also in Syriac. 1 

As a grammarian, his works have long served many generations of Orien¬ 
talists in the study of the Syriac Language. The most elaborate of his gram¬ 
matical compendia, entitled Book of Splendours, was compiled on the model of 
extensive Arabic 2 works in the held; and he made a rhymed synopsis of it, 
possibly in imitation of the famous Arabic Alfiyat ibn Malik. His poetry, too, 
has attracted much attention for centuries. The Carmina de divina sapientia was 
edited with a Latin rendering as early as the seventeenth century. 3 He tried 
his pen at all manner of projects, such as the Interpretation of Dreams which he 
composed in his youth and a collection of tales of wit and wisdom. 4 All 
this together with a complete liturgy and a Profession of the Faith 5 among 
the long list of his works were accomplished in times of political, ecclesiasti¬ 
cal and international unsettlement; and before the age of sixty. Bar Hebraeus 
achieved a glorious finale to the long annals of Syriac letters and learning. 

135-6. The work is divided in two books: one on heavenly bodies and another on earth 
and the relations between the heavenly and earthly bodies, astronomy and astrology being 

1 Wright, pp. 271-3; Baumstark, p 318; H. F. Wiistenfeld, Geschichte der arabischen 
Ar^te und Naturforscher (Gottingen, 1840), pp. 145-6 (no. 240). 

2 Paulin Martin, CEuvres grammaticales d'Aboill-Faradj , dit Bar Hebreus (Paris, 1872); 
Axel Moberg made a German version of the bigger grammar with critical notices (Leipzig, 
1907; 1913); cf. Wright, p. 273, and Chabot, op. cit., p. 136. Apparently Bar Plebrseus 
left a third grammar unfinished. 

3 By Gabriel Sionita, De sapientia divina poeina cenigmaticum (Paris, 1638); re-issued by 
Yohanna Notayn al-Dar'uni, Carmen de divina sapientia (Rome, 1880); cf. Chabot, p. 136, 
and Wright, p. 280. 

4 Published in Syriac and English by E. W. Wallis Budge, 'Laughable Stories (London, 
1896); cf. Chabot, p. 136. 

6 Translated into Latin by E. Rcnaudot, Liturgianm orientalium collection 2 vols. (Paris, 
1716), II, 455 ff., Duval, p. 410. 


Mongols, Turks and Kurds 

In spite of elements of decline in so many aspects of Syrian life and literature, 
the Jacobite church must have continued to thrive under Arab rule suffi¬ 
ciently for its community to produce men like Michael the Syrian, Dionysius 
bar Sallbi, and Bar Hebrasus. Indeed it is quite conceivable that the Jacobite 
church enjoyed one of its best periods of prosperity under Muslim rule to¬ 
wards the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries. 
On the authority of Bar Hebraeus, 1 the august historian of that age, the 
Jacobite patriarchs then ruled over twenty metropolitans and about a hun¬ 
dred bishops in dioceses spread over Syria, Anatolia, upper Mesopotamia and 
other regions of the western parts of the Middle East, while the maphrianate 
of Tekrit included eighteen episcopal dioceses in lower Mesopotamia- 
Persia and lands eastwards. The Jacobites were gaining ground, and in, 
stances of peaceful conversion to their creed from amongst the Nestorians 
were not infrequent. On the whole they disliked violence and coerced neither 
Greek, Latin nor Muslim, though amongst themselves they did not lead a 
peaceful life. The patriarchal dignity was coveted by rival claimants, and this 
led to a succession of schisms, the practice of simony, and the bribing of 
caliphs and the Muslim administration in order to acquire their support for 
one party against another. Enlightened members such as Bar Hebrasus pre¬ 
ferred to keep out of these internecine contests for the patriarchate. This 
lamentable state worsened with the change of rulers and became scandalous 
under the Turkish sultans. 

The real tribulations of the Jacobites began with the Mongol invasions 2 
and their indiscriminate ravages in western Asia, of which Bar Hebraeus, an 
eye-witness, gives a vivid picture in his chronicles. The early Mongols, 
however, favoured the Christians, and some of their great khans were almost 
Christian converts themselves. Hulagu, the conqueror of Ba gh dad, city of 
the caliphs, in 1258 and the founder of the Il-Khanate of Persia, had a Chris¬ 
tian wife 3 and he is said to have professed Christianity, though there is no 
proof that he was baptized. In the sack of the city, where the slain were 
estimated at 800,000, the Christians survived safely within their own quarters. 
Further, Christians were allowed to rebuild their churches and practice their 
faith without restriction or humiliation in Ba gh dad and Damascus. Bar 
LIebra:us lamented the death of Hulagu and his wife as if they were defenders 
of the faith. It would be an error to assume that the Christians did not 

1 Hist. eccles. y 460; cf. Fortescue, p. 331. 

2 L. E. Browne, Eclipse of Christianity in Asia , pp. 147-78; H. IT. Howorth, History of 
the Mongols , 4 parts in 5 vols. (London, 1876-1927), III, 141, 154, 170, 247. 

3 Her name was Dukuz Khatun; Howorth, III, 164, 210; L. Cahun, Introduction a 
I'histoire de VAsic (Paris, 1896), pp. 391 ct seq. 


suffer at all amidst the din and clamour of those barbarian invasions. The 
Jacobites who had been living with the rest of the population outside the 
capital in territories trodden by the Tartar hordes could not be singled 
out for special treatment. Consequently, they must have shared their com¬ 
patriots’ heavy loss of life and property in the course of the indiscriminate 
Mongol maraudings, irrespective of the tolerance of the great khan and his 

The deliberate reversal of Mongol benevolent policy towards the Chris¬ 
tians dates from the time of their conversion to Islam. The History of Yah- 
ballaha and the Continuation of Bar Hebrews ’ Chronicle give a true picture of that 
sorry chapter. The missionaries of both the East and the West failed to pro¬ 
mote the cause of the Gospel at the Mongol court, and ultimately Gh azan 
adopted the faith of Islam and made it the official religion of the state from 
1295. 1 As a result, the Jacobites together with other Christian communities 
were subjected to systematic persecution throughout the fourteenth cen¬ 
tury. The advent of Timur Lane in 1394 meant national disaster for all. 
Districts pre-eminently Jacobite in character, such as Amid (Diyarbekr), 
Mardin, Mosul, Tur- c AbdIn and Tekrit, suffered unparallelled devastation at 
the hands of his hordes. Jacobites were hunted and massacred in al-jazlrah 
and upper Mesopotamia. Those who escaped slaughter took refuge in the 
arid mountains until the storm subsided, only to return home to find their 
churches and monasteries levelled to the ground. It is to this period that we 
must date the disappearance of the majority of the hitherto flourishing monas¬ 
tic foundations of the Jacobites. Those ancient seats of light and learning were 
extinguished forever, and their priceless literary contents were set aflame. 
The maphrianate of Tekrit was vacant from 1379 to 1404. 2 The morale of the 
clergy was low, and the patriarchal dignity was coveted by rival parties of a 
poor quality, which resulted in disunity and frequent schisms. Deprived of 
strong leadership and beset by one enemy after another, the community 
dwindled and declined. At first, their civilization was all but wiped out by the 
Mongols and Timur Lane’s hordes. Then the Turks followed, to stay for 
centuries - the Saljuqs, with their traditional intolerance intensified by the 
Crusades, were replaced by the Ottomans, who ruled, or rather misruled, 
loosely the remote pashaliks of their Asiatic empire from Istanbul on the 
European shores of the Bosphorus. 

The main interest of the Sublime Porte lay in exacting as much money as 
possible from the Christian ‘millets’, and the sultan granted the usual firman 
or charter confirming a patriarchal election to the highest bidder. In turn 
Christian prelates resorted to simoniacal practices to fulfil their obligations 
towards their supporters. The Church became demoralized, and the spiritual 

1 Howorth, III, 384, 396, 427; L. Cahun. Introduction , p. 432. 

2 L. E. Browne, Eclipse of Christianity in Asia , p. 172. 


and educational welfare of the community was no longer of any account. 
Like the Nestorians, the Jacobites were stricken with phenomenal ignorance 
and great poverty in modern times. Their ranks were steadily depleted until 
they numbered from 150,000 to 200,000 in the nineteenth century, 1 mainly 
in Kurdistan and upper Mesopotamia around Mosul and in Syria at Homs. 
On the whole, the Jacobites tried to preserve amicable relations with their 
Muslim neighbours and sought peaceful co-existence with the Kurds. Sir 
Mark Sykes, 2 who travelled in the area during the early years of this century, 
noted that it was difficult to distinguish the Jacobites from the Kurds at a 
first glance either in appearance or language. Though they did not suffer 
the same fate as the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, or as the 
Nestorians in their strife with the Kurds, it may be assumed that the ugly 
wave of fanaticism which surged in those regions could not have left them 
unharmed. It is very difficult to assess with precision the relations between 
Jacobite, Turk and Kurd in modern times, though certain broad principles 
are sufficiently clear. In spite of the traditional bigotry of the Kurdish mullah 
and the Jacobite priest, as a general rule their communities appear to have 
been living together in relative harmony. Only when inflamed by the revival 
of the spirit of holy war, customarily fanned by the Turkish governors in an 
attempt to divide and rule, did these relations truly deteriorate. The Jaco¬ 
bites differed from their Armenian and Nestorian co-religionists. While 
steadfastly retaining their faith and loyalty to their church, the Jacobite people 
were never averse to social integration within the greater order of all citizens 
irrespective of religious difference. This normal behaviour, combined with 
religious tenacity, accounts for their survival in their traditional homeland, 
unlike the Armenians and the Nestorians, who were either exterminated or 
dispersed. Instances of Kurdish violence are not wanting. The bishop who 
accompanied the Rev. Horatio Southgate 3 to the library of the monastery 

1 Minority numbers are very controversial in the area. This estimate is based on O. II. 
Parry’s report ( Six Months in a Syrian Monastery, p. 346) published in 1895 and adopted by 
H. B. Tozer (The Church and the Eastern Empire, p. 80), F. J. Bliss (Religions of Modern 
Syria and Palestine, pp. 74-5) and B. J. Kidd (Churches of Eastern Christendom, p. 438). 
A. Diomedes Kyriakos, Geschichte der orientalischen Kirchen von 1453-1898 (Leipzig, 1902), 
pp. 268-9, c it es 50,000 families at the end of the sixteenth century, 30,000 families in 
the eighteenth, and about 200,000 souls in the nineteenth. Roman Catholic writers 
cherish a downward estimate. R. Janin, tiglises Orientates (Paris, 1926), p. 469, mentions 
120,000, and D. Attwater, Christian Churches of the East, Vol. II, p. 230, quotes 90,000 
with 10,000 in Syria and Lebanon. Rondot’s table in Chretiens d'Orient, p. 224, provides 
the thinner total of 40,135, which is highly doubtful. P. Raphael, The Role of the Maronites 
in the Return of the Oriental Churches (Youngstown, Ohio, 1946), p. 99, puts them at 90,000. 

2 The Caliphs ’ East Heritage (London, 1915), p. 354* 

3 Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian (Jacobite) Church of Mesopotamia; with Statements and 
Reflections upon the Present State of Christianity in Turkey, and the Character and Prospects of 
the Eastern Churches (New York, 1856), p. 225. The monastery is said to have been twice 
occupied by the Turks: once for forty years and again for ten; ibid., p. 197. Parry, Six 

H E C—H 


of al-Za faran in 1841 apologized for its depleted contents, as the Kurds 
had used most of the ancient codices as wadding for their guns during their 
last occupation of the establishment. In spite of this vandalism the monastery 
reverted to the Jacobites. 

I he modern history of the Jacobite church is very obscure compared with 
its ancient annals, in part owing to lack of education and national awareness. 
One of the first signs of awakening occurred in 1838 when the Jacobite 
patriarch was told by the Armenian patriarch in the course of a visit to 
Constantinople that people without schools must inevitably decline. The 
remark sank deep into his mind, and on his return he founded a modest 
school for twenty-five boys 1 at Deir al-Za faran. Syriac, Arabic and pen¬ 
manship taught by defective clerics without text-books was their starting 
point. Though other schools followed in the remaining four or five Jacobite 
monasteries, the ecclesiastical impetus was found to lag behind the times by 
the laity who clamoured for wider reform and, in 1913-14, succeeded in 
obtaining a new constitution from the sultan whereby an administrative 
council, or secular assembly, participated with the hierarchy in the control 
of Church affairs. 2 p The council stressed clerical education and the revival of 
Church discipline in accordance with ancient doctrine in order to arrest the 
rising tide of proselytizing by the more highly developed systems of Roman 
Catholic and Protestant missionaries from the West. 

In 1920 the Jacobite patriarch deemed it safer to transplant his seat to 
Homs (the ancient Emesa) in Syria as a result of the rising anti-Christian 
feeling incurred by the sanguine struggle between Kurd and Nestorian. 
From there he ruled and still rules over a total of sixteen metropolitan and 
episcopal dioceses. These include seven in South India, three in Syria, two in 

Iraq, two in Turkey, one in Egypt, and one in the United States of America 
jointly with Canada. 

Missionary Movement 

In their desperate struggle against ignorance and stagnation, the Jacobites 
began to look to the West for co-operative measures, and the coming of the 
missionary appeared at first to be a sure way of salvation - hence the early 
acquiescence of the church to the emergence of this new modernizing factor 
in the educational and spiritual life of the people. The Syrian missions came 

Atonthsy pp. 337 8, gives a short description of the contents of the library, with four AfSS. 
dated tenth-eleventh century. Further notices by Ainsworth, IT, 345, and Badger, I, 51. 
1 Southgate, p. 202. 2 Janin, Egliscs Orientates , p. 461. 


from three sources: Rome, America and England. All were no doubt well- 
meaning at the beginning and wished to render much-needed service. The 
Roman Catholics were the earliest on the scene, and they were followed by 
many Congregationalists and Presbyterians from the United States as well as 
more modest numbers from the Church of England. Let us deal briefly with 
each of the three movements to complete the picture of the modern history 
of this ancient church and its difficulties with its new helpers. 

As has already been stated, the eastern Monophysites, though deploring 
the Chalcedonian profession of faith in the West, still continued to consider 
Rome as one of the three leading ancient Apostolic bishoprics with which 
they had much in common - the others being Alexandria and Antioch. In 
their days of depression, the eastern Christians were not averse to sending 
delegations for rapprochement with Rome. The earliest of these Syrian missions 
occurred in 1552 when Moses of Mardin went to Rome for an attempt at 
reconciliation with Pope Julius III. 1 But neither party seemed to take this 
approach seriously. Then around the middle of the seventeenth century, one 
Abdul-Ghal Akhijan of Mardin, a Jacobite, was converted to Catholicism by 
a Catholic missionary and fled to Lebanon, whence he was sent to the Maro- 
nite Seminary in Rome for instruction. Later, on the suggestion of the French 
Consul Francois Piquet at Aleppo, the Maronite patriarch consecrated him 
as Catholic Syrian bishop of Aleppo under the name Andrew in 1656. With 
the glamour of diplomatics behind him and with what he could offer in the 
progressive services of the West, as well as his convincing learning versus 
limited Jacobite aptitudes, he succeeded in building up a following. Then, 
when the Jacobite patriarch died at Mardin and rival parties contested suc¬ 
cession, Piquet and another French diplomat named Baron worked hard to 
put Andrew in possession of the vacant throne. In the words of the historian 
of this curious chapter who quoted the official documents, the story reads: 
‘Spending very much money, he succeeded, due to the official intervention of 
France, to have the Sultan give in 1662, for the favour of Msgr. Andrew, an 
imperial commandment, the most ample they ever saw written with gold 
characters and another order to all the Pashas and Cadis to submit all the 
Syrian people under the above-said, Msgr. Andrew’s jurisdiction, in the 
whole Empire.’ 2 Pope Clement IX ratified the election and sent him the 
pallium in 1667. Thus was born the Catholic patriarchate of the Syrians, 
and the Jacobites faced a new crisis in their history. It is beyond the limita¬ 
tions of this work to follow the details of the ensuing struggle, at times both 
pathetic and even scandalous. But with lavish expenditure, magnificent 

1 Parry, p. 302; Etheridge, p. 149. 

2 P. Raphael, Role of Maronitcs , pp. 104-5; scc P* T °5> no - T > f° r reference to unpub¬ 
lished material and dispatches from the diplomatic correspondence from 'Turkey in the 
Ministere dcs Affaires Ltrangeres in Paris (T. XXXVIII, f. 209). 


churches in key towns such as Mosul, profound learning, well-knit propa¬ 
ganda, ecclesiastical discipline, and the benefits of higher education offered 
by St Joseph’s University in Beirut as well as seminary foundations, the 
Catholic Church was destined to stay amidst the Syrians and carve a con¬ 
siderable congregation from the body of the old Jacobite community. In 
recent years their number has ranged between 60,000 and 65,000. 1 

The Romanized Syrians are designated by the firm Jacobite Syrians as 
Maghlubin , Arabic for Vanquished’. At first, the Catholics met with fierce 
opposition and were actually on the edge of extermination when, in 1783, 
Michael Jarweh, archbishop of Aleppo, turned Roman Catholic. He was 
followed by four Jacobite bishops: Abraham, Na r meh, Moses and George, 
who proclaimed him patriarch of Mardin, and Pope Pius VI hastened to his 
confirmation with the customary pallium in the same year. It happened that 
the old Jacobite patriarch had died at the time, and the Romanized Jarweh 
speedily moved to Mardin to seize the vacant see. But the Jacobite bishops 
had already elected another of their profession, and Jarweh was pursued in 
flight for his life, first to Baghdad and then to Lebanon, where he died a 
hunted refugee in a Maronite village in 1800. 2 3 

Nevertheless, the Catholic succession has been maintained to the present 
day, and the new line has comprised some notable Syrian scholars. Patriarch 
Ignatius Ephraem Rahmani (1898-1929)3 was a man of learning who retained 
lively interest in Syriac letters and theology. During his tenure, he decided 
to transfer the Roman patriarchal residence to Beirut amongst the more 
friendly Maronite co-religionists in order to escape from the hostility of the 
more numerous Jacobites and the interference of the Turkish authorities. 
His successor, Ignatius Gabriel Tappuni, was raised to the cardinalate in 
1936, and for the first time in history a Syrian became one of the princes of 
Rome. With assiduousness and tenacity the Catholics instituted missionary 
organizations to labour amidst the Syrians. In 1882 they created the Mis¬ 
sionaries of St Ephraem in Mardin, who dwindled away. The movement was 
reinvigorated in 1935 by means of the introduction of the Rule of St Bene¬ 
dict at the convent of Sharfeh, from where the Church conducted seminaries, 
schools, publishing and active propaganda without trespassing on parochial 
jurisdiction. The more opulent monastery of Mar Behnam, once a Jacobite 
foundation, has become a stronghold of Catholic influence in the midst of the 

1 Janin, Egiiscs Orientates , p. 476, gives an estimate of about 65,000, of whom 6,800 
arc in the U.S.A. and 8,000 in Canada, South America, France and elsewhere. Attwater, 
I, 157, cites 60,000 in the patriarchal territory of Syria and Iraq, but in his general table 
he puts the Catholic Syrians of Syria, Iraq, and the U.S.A. at 74,500. 

2 P. Raphael, pp. 113-15; Attwater, I, 154. 

3 It is interesting to note that the Catholic patriarchs have adopted the name Ignatius, 
which the Jacobite patriarchs have consistently kept since the reign of Ignatius V (Bar 
Wahib) of Mardin in 1292. Fortcscuc, p. 338. 


important Jacobite centre of the Mosul region. In Beirut, too, Patriarch 
Rahmani started a convent of St Ephraem for Syrian nuns. The adoption of 
the Catholic profession was made a simple affair for the Syrians. Submission 
to Rome was the kernel of the problem. Even since the Council of Sharfeh 
in 1888, enforcing celibacy on the clergy, the door was kept open with 
special dispensation to any married Syrian priest (khuri) who wished to turn 
from the Jacobite to the Catholic rite. The ancient Liturgy of St James has 
been adopted by Rome for the Syrians in the same original Edessene dialect 
of Syriac, with minor alterations and interpolations to evade the open re¬ 
pudiation of Chalcedon and to affirm papal supremacy. 1 

The arrival of the Protestant missionary 2 on the scene in the Middle 
East during the nineteenth century was a different affair. From America the 
movement was inaugurated by a Congregational committee of the Board of 
Missions in 1819 at the Old South Church in Boston. Pliny Fisk and Levi 
Parsons were selected as the first emissaries for labouring in the Turkish 
Near East without a preconceived plan directed to any given Oriental 
Church, and it is doubtful whether the Americans had any clear idea about 
the intricacy of the network of ancient denominations in the East. The initial 
offering of $290-92, which has increased to a quarter-billion dollars in our 
day, helped to bring those two pioneers to Smyrna to explore the possi¬ 
bilities of service amidst the poverty-stricken and disease-ridden peoples 
under the Turkish yoke. 3 The field was found to abound in opportunities. 
Two others followed when the Rev. Isaac Bird and William Goodell arrived 
at Beirut in 1823 to concentrate on Arabic-speaking Syria and Lebanon. The 
Rev. Justin Perkins was assigned to Persia and devoted himself to working 
with the Nestorians or East Syrian Christians. In 1836, the Rev. Horatio 
Southgate was commissioned by the Board to make a fuller investigation of 
further possibilities of missionary endeavour in Turkey, Persia, Syria and 
Egypt. His reports commended work amongst the Eastern Christians as a 

1 Janin, pp. 470-7; Parry, pp. 301-5; Raphael, pp. 110-23. 

2 On the American Protestant missionary in this area see: R. Anderson, History of the 
American Board of Commission for Foreign Missions to the Oriental Churches (Boston, 1872); 
J. Batal, Assignment - Near East (New York, 1950); A. J. Dain, Mission Fields Today 
(London, 1956); Handbook on Foreign Missions of the United Presbyterian Church of North 
America (published annually at Philadelphia); O. D. Morton, Memoir of Rev. Eevi Parson - 
F irst Missionary to Palestine from the United States (Burlington, Vt., 1830); J. Richter, History 
of Protestant Missions in the Near East (New York, 1910); P. E. Shaw, American Contacts 
with the Eastern Churches , 1820-yo (Chicago, 1937); P. Rondot, Ees Chretiens d'Orient y 
Cahiers de l’Afrique et de l’Asie, No. 4 (Paris, 1955); F. G. Smith, Missionary Journeys 
through Bible Lands - Italy , Greece , Egypt , Palestine , Syria , Asia Minor and Other Countries 
(Anderson, Ind., 1915). More detailed references may be found in A Selected and Annotated 
Bibliography of North Africa and the Near East , compiled K. E. Moyer (New York, 1957) 
from the contents of the Missionary Research Library at Union Theological Seminary 
in New York City. 

3 Shaw, American Contacts , pp. 71 et seq.; Batal, Assignment , pp. 17 et scq. 


preliminary measure towards dealing with non-Christians. Accordingly, the 
Mission to the Near East came into existence in the following year, and the 
Rev. John J. Robertson was chosen for the Greeks in Constantinople and 
Southgate for the Jacobites in Mardin. Their instructions were explicit to 
keep the unity of the Eastern churches and avert the evils of schism, recog¬ 
nizing their Apostolic character without compromising Protestant principles. 
When Robertson withdrew to the United States for domestic reasons in 
1842, Southgate succeeded him in Constantinople and ultimately became its 
first Episcopal bishop in 1844. Accordingly, he was diverted from the 
Jacobites by the work amongst the Armenians in Anatolia; and although he 
maintained friendly relations with the eastern patriarchs, the nominees of the 
Board started proselytizing native Christians against his will and the spirit of 
their original instructions. This led to trouble and the frequent withdrawal of 
missionaries from the field, ending with the resignation of Southgate himself 
in 1850. 1 

The failure of Southgate’s mission in the capital did not stop missionary 
expansion from Beirut, where the Syrian Protestant College was founded in 
1866. The main legacy of the Protestant missionary in the Middle East was in 
the field of education, and we find the mission centres multiplying in Syria 
side by side with schools. Thus the Protestant Evangelical Church continued 
to make gains amongst the Syrians and from all the ancient churches, Jaco¬ 
bite and otherwise. On the whole, it was impossible for the American mis¬ 
sionary to value the nature and traditions of those churches, which he re¬ 
garded as mere fossils without hope of revival. To him Church history began 
with Martin Luther, and many Syrians found in this modern organization a 
safe shelter from Roman Catholic encroachments. Thus the number of 
Protestant congregations in greater Syria, comprising Transjordan, Lebanon 
and Palestine, reached in the end 74,700, almost exclusively drawn from the 
ancient churches including the Jacobite community. 

From the Church of England more modest attempts were also forth¬ 
coming, but on a completely different principle. J. W. Etheridge 2 visited the 
Jacobites around 1840 and later published a lengthy account of the Syrian 
churches and their liturgies and literature. Then in 1842, G. P. Badger, 3 
the representative of the archbishop of Canterbury’s mission to the Assyrians 
or Nestorians, also examined the state of the Jacobite Church and gave an 
account of his enquiries. The most important of the reports on that Church, 
however, came towards the end of the century. A Syrian Patriarchate Educa¬ 
tion Society was founded in England, and in 1892 it selected O. H. Parry, 

1 Shaw, pp. 62-9. 

2 The Syrian Churches (London, 1846), pp. 135 et seq., on the Jacobites. 

3 The Nestorians and their Rituals, With the Narrative of a Mission to Mesopotamia and 
Coordislan in 1842-44, 2 vols. (London, 1852). On the Jacobites see I, 44, 59-63, 71-2. 


of Magdalen College in Oxford, 1 to travel to the Middle East on its behalf 
to examine the position of the Jacobite Church and to decide ways in which 
the English Church could help it. He was expected in particular to inspect 
the schools founded by the patriarch and to prescribe the means of promoting 
education among the Jacobites. The outcome of the six months he spent in a 
Syrian monastery was a masterly account of the first direct contact with the 
Jacobite people and their historic Church. His outward journey encompassed 
Aleppo, Urfa (Edessa), Diyarbekr, Mardin, Mosul, and above all Dair 
al-ZaTaran, the historic seat of the Jacobite patriarchs. In the area of Tur- 
c AbdIn, he noted that a village possessed an average of four books and that 
the need was pressing for educational help, which the Syrians sought from 
the West. This was the first element in any stable reform, which had to come 
from within the community itself. The Jacobite Syrians were a proud and 
patriotic people who had been crying for disinterested assistance in resisting 
the inroads made upon their Church, and it was the duty of the English 
Church to respond to their cry in the spirit of Christian charity without seek¬ 
ing converts of intercommunion. It is difficult to assess the concrete results 
of his enterprise. The material resources of the project in England were 
unequal to the goodwill of its mission. 

The impact of the Protestant missionary movement in the Near East has 
meant essentially a remarkable awakening of the ancient churches. At the 
outset, the American missionary encountered no hostility from either the 
hierarchies or the communities of Eastern Christians, who witnessed with 
curiosity his new methods of worship and modern disciplines, as well as the 
opportunities of admirable service in the educational, medical and social 
fields. He was also regarded as a new ally and a true helper against the grow¬ 
ing menace of Roman inroads. The Jacobites had already been in open war¬ 
fare with the Catholics at home and entertained visions of aid and solace from 
the Protestant newcomer. Instead, bitter disillusionment ensued as the Protes¬ 
tant missionary began to change his attitude towards those venerable organ¬ 
izations of which he had no real understanding and which he considered to be 
beyond reform. Thus he embarked on forming his own Protestant Evangeli¬ 
cal Church and took to proselytizing members of ancient congregations with 
lamentable consequences. The Jacobites, who sought education without the 
peril of divorce from their traditional churches, accordingly welcomed the 
disinterested tone of the English missionary. Soon afterwards, in 1874, the 
Jacobite patriarch Peter III visited England by special invitation from Dr 
Tait, archbishop of Canterbury, and was honourably received by Queen 
Victoria. 2 Oswald H. Parry’s associations with those friendly Christians 
together with his six months stay 3 at the monastery of al-ZaTaran in the 

1 Six Months in a Syrian Monastery. 

2 Ibid., p. 351. 

3 Ibid., p. 105. 


summer of 1892 gave him an insight into their real needs and turned him 
against the Protestant activities of his day. 1 Plis enlightened remarks about 
the Christian religious tangle in the Middle East at the turn of the century 
have since been justified. On the other hand, the Protestant challenge gave 
the hierarchy of the old church a rude awakening to rekindle the flickering 
flame of a glorious past. 

1 Six Months in a Syrian Monastery , p. 309, deprecates the Americans who ‘pursue a 
wrong policy’. Parry, p. 310, gives them credit, for ‘the education which they give is 
the best in turkey’. With all his understanding, however. Parry (p. 312), stumbles over 
Chalcedon and cannot see his way to intercommunion with an excommunicated church, 
although the Bishop of Durham, B. F. Westcott, who introduced the book, notes (p. vii) 
in speaking of both Jacobites and Nestorians that ‘the accusation rests on the misunder¬ 
standing of technical terms, and can be cleared away by mutual explanations’. 


The Hierarchy 

The organization of the hierarchy of the Jacobite Church is elaborate, closely 
knit together, and has some unique features arising from its peculiar circum¬ 
stances in history. It comprises both the monastic and secular types of priest¬ 
hood. The highest authority and head of the church is the patriarch. His 
official title is ‘His Holiness Mar Ignatius . . . Exalted Patriarch of the 
Apostolic See of Antioch and of all the Jacobite Churches of Syria and in the 
East.’ 1 The title ‘Ignatius’ has been adopted since 1293, when Bar Wahlb for 
the first time took the name of Ignatius, the great bishop of Antioch martyred 
at Rome about 107 a.d. The patriarch is elected by the synod including the 
maphrian and all the bishops in consultation with the leaders of the Jacobite 
people. He resides at Homs in Syria, previously having lived for some 
centuries at the monastery of al-ZaTaran, near Mardin in Turkish territory. 
His election was always confirmed by a special firman from the Sublime 
Porte giving him vast ecclesiastical and civil powers in conducting the affairs 
of the Jacobite community or ‘Millet’. After his consecration, he could be 
deposed only for heresy or by a unanimous vote of the nation. As a rule, the 
synod submitted two names to the sultan for him to choose one, and this 
enabled the Turkish administration to bargain with the highest bidder. The 
candidate had to be a monk of lifelong celibacy, learning and sanctity. Since 
the ancient discipline prohibited, as in the Coptic Church, the translation of 
bishops from one see to another, it became the rule that a bishop could not be 
elevated to the patriarchal throne. Of course, a number of isolated cases of 
episcopal preferment to the patriarchate can be found in medixval times, but 
these are rare. Perhaps the first instance of that kind on record was that of the 
Patriarch Severus bar Maske, who had been bishop of Amida in 977. Again 
Athanasius VI, formerly bishop of Arishmitat (Arsamosata), was elected in 

1 According to Parry (p. 314), who states that sometimes he has been called ‘Papa 
Orientis’ and ‘Patriarcha theopolis Antiochice totiusque Orientis’. Etherdige (pp. 147-8) 
puts him as ‘Patriarch of Antioch, the City of God and of the Whole East’, and says that 
he is described as ‘Abo Darishonce’, that is, ‘Father of the Chiefs’. 



1058, but his election caused a schism within the Church. In 1222, Ignatius 
David was advanced from the maphrianate to the patriarchate, thereby setting 
a new pattern for a few generations. 1 Though there is no ancient Syrian canon 
prohibiting this practice, it has never been firmly accepted. In fact, it has been 
described as a form of ecclesiastical bigamy and the equivalent of re-baptism, 
since the candidate was bound to undergo a second consecration and assume 
a new name. Jacobite patriarchs, on the whole, have been men of integrity 
and steadfast in the faith, though exceptions occur in their crowded annals. 
Within living memory, the career of Patriarch Ignatius "Abdallah Sattuf 
presents an image of instability and vacillation. Formerly bishop of Homs 
and Hama under the name of Gregory, he later assumed the metropolitan see 
of Diyarbekr as a Jacobite prelate. He visited England and South India, 
where he fell under the spell of Protestant ideas and revolted against ikons 
upon his return to Syria. Curiously, however, he bewildered everyone by a 
sudden decision in 1896 to become a Uniate, a position he maintained for 
nine years. In the end, he recanted to the Jacobites, who promised him the 
patriarchal throne in 1906. 2 Since those days the Church has recovered its 
prestige only through the accession of other men of weight to the patriarchal 
dignity. The late Patriarch Mar Ignatius Ephraem I, 3 who resided at Homs, 
was an exemplary personality of considerable erudition and a credit to his 
venerable church. 

Next to the patriarch is the maphrian, 4 a dignitary to be found only in the 
Jacobite church with the historic title 'Maphrian and Catholicos 5 of the East’, 
signitying the position he once held as primate of lower Mesopotamia, Persia 
and the lands beyond. The first Jacobite metropolitan of Persia was Ahodame, 
formerly bishop of the Arabs, whom Jacob Baradteus consecrated during his 
eastern visitation in 559. The seat of the maphriantate was fixed at Tekrit in 
628 with the ordination of Marutha, the great Syrian scholar, as maphrian by 
Patriarch Athanasius I. Under him the eastern province grew to great strength 
with 15 bishoprics covering Arabia, lower Mesopotamia, Persia and Afghani¬ 
stan. The maphrian was possessed of all patriarchal prerogative in the East. 
He ordained and deposed bishops, consecrated the chrism, and discharged 
all pontifical functions independently in the same areas within his jurisdiction. 
A bishop of bishops, or pater patrum , the maphrian in modern times became 
a titular and honorary dignity usually conferred upon the metropolitan of 
Jerusalem. Since the death of Behnam IV, the eighty-first maphrian, in 1895, 

1 Fortescue, p. 337; Parry, p. 316. 

2 Fortescue, pp. 338-9; Attwater, II, 228. 

3 His additional notes to al-Shabushti’s famous work Kitdb al-Diydrdt are valuable. 

4 Mapbriono , or Maphryana , sometimes considered a corruption of Malphono , that is, 
doctor; more correctly it is derived from aphri , a word designating fruitfulness or pater¬ 
nity. Etheridge, p. 148; Fortescue, p. 340. 

5 For which we have the arabicized form Jathliq common in Arabic chronicles. 


the title has remained in abeyance. 1 One of its most notable mediaeval holders 
was, of course, Bar Hebrxus (1264-86), who expressed no desire for prefer¬ 
ment to the patriarchal throne. 

From monastic ranks, too, are drawn the heads of metropolitan dioceses, 
sixteen archbishops ( Mutrans ) distributed in the following manner: seven in 
India, three in Syria, two in Iraq, two in Turkey, one in Egypt and one in the 
United States of America and Canada. 2 They have no suffragans and are 
usually consecrated by the patriarch with the assistance and in the presence 
of at least two or three bishops. Apparently the new name or title they receive 
on ordination has been permanently fixed by the diocese. Hence Antioch, 
the patriarchal province, carries Ignatius; Jerusalem, Gregorius; Urfa (Edes- 
sa), Severus; Diyarbekr (Amida), Timotheus; Mardin, Athanasius; Mosul, 
Basileus; and Aleppo, Dionysius. 3 Abbots of monasteries bear the title of 
bishop, though Mar Mattai at Mosul is cited as archbishop. The Jacobites 
have five monasteries, 4 but evidently no nunneries. Thirty-five years is the 
minimum canonical age for episcopal consecration, although there are ex¬ 
ceptions such as the case of Bar Hebrxus, who became bishop at twenty. 

Secular priests, living with the congregations in villages, are married only 
once before ordination. If any of them loses his wife, he retires automatically 
to a monastery and becomes eligible to the rank of bishop to enable him to 
continue living in his original parish, but cannot advance further. A head 
priest in a large town with several assistant priests may be elevated to the 
dignity of cbor-episcopos with responsibilities, both civil and ecclesiastical, of 
a regular bishop. Under the Ottomans, priests were exempt from certain 
taxes and sendees. Hence the priesthood was sought after, and many more 
were ordained than were needed by parishes. A Jacobite priest as a rule is 
poor and has to supplement his meagre stipend by working with others in 
the fields. The congregation of the parish elects its own priests from the 
multitude of deacons in the area, and the bishops ordained the priests by the 
laying on of hands. Members of the clergy shave their heads and grow beards. 
They wear a black cloak and a black turban. Distinction of higher ranks is 
indicated by the onion-shaped, domelike turban. 

The minor orders comprise the singer ( ??ia%j?iorano ), reader (, knrayo ), sub¬ 
deacon ( pblegnth-masbcwisbono ), deacon ( masbatttsbono ), and archdeacon (risb- 
mashmashonee ). 5 

The order of deaconesses, though known to have existed in the early 

1 Severius Jacob, Syrian metropolitan of Beirut and Damascus, ‘The Syrian Church 
Yesterday and Today’, in Orthodoxy , VI (1954), 228. 

2 List provided in Orthodoxy , VI (1954), under ‘Our Eastern Brothers’. 

3 Cf. Parry, pp. 321-2. 

4 Parry, p. 323, lists five; Fortcscue, p. 341, mentions the same number, but lists only 

5 Etheridge, p. 147. 


centuries for assisting in the baptism of women, has long since disappeared 
with the adoption of the system of child baptism and confirmation. 

Rites and Liturgy 

The rites and liturgies of the Syrians are known for their great antiquity, 
since Antioch was one of the first places where organized Christian worship 
was instituted. It is here that one may legitimately trace the origins and 
parentage of Jacobite practices. The Syrian churches, in their appearance of 
austere simplicity, not only betray the poverty of the community but also the 
primitive nature of the place of worship in Christian antiquity. The Jacobites 
in the past, however, took to building their churches in accordance with the 
standard traditions of the East. They consisted mainly of a narthex, nave, 
chancel and sanctuary. The main entrance from the narthex customarily 
opened out to a courtyard, or atrium, where they were accustomed to officiate 
in times of excessive summer heat. Otherwise the congregation squatted on 
matting or stood for the service inside the nave with a special space reserved 
for women - benches being, of course, a relatively modern improvement. The 
chancel is a slightly elevated platform frequently surrounded by railings for 
the deacons and choir. A couple of lecterns stand on either side of the sanctuary 
door within the chancel for lesson readings. A wall, though usually without 
pictures, takes the place of the iconostasis between the chancel and a sanctuary 
which is again elevated by one or two more steps. It contains a central high 
altar and sometimes one, or even two side altars 1 for concelebration. Each 
altar has an apse, or niche, behind it and an open door leading to the chancel 
and nave, with a curtain to be drawn at certain moments during the liturgy, 
or even when there is no liturgy. The chief celebrant at the high altar leads 
the prayer while the others officiate silently. The altar is either of stone or a 
wooden construction with a board dedicated at its centre for the Eucharist 
that is surrounded by Gospels, crosses, candles and other utensils. Relics are 
kept in oblong cylinders entrusted to the deacons, who lock them safely 
inside the sanctuary enclosure. The vestments consist of the alb, amice, girdle, 
stole and chasuble. Priests wear a black skull cap, but bishops use an em¬ 
broidered large hood (> masnefto ) and an omophorion (badrashin) hanging down 
front and back over the chasuble. Uniate bishops, of course, wear the Roman 
mitre and ring, both unknown to the Jacobites. 2 

The sacred liturgy of the Jacobites, or West Syrians is one of the oldest 

1 The Copts always have three, the Byzantines only one. 

2 Parry, p. 320; Fortescue, pp. 344-5; Orthodoxy , VI (1954), 232-45; Attwater, IT, 231-2. 


and richest in Christendom. They use essentially the Liturgy of St James 1 in 
the west Syriac dialect. Dionysius bar Sallbi, 2 the greatest of all Syrian liturgi- 
ologists of mediaeval times, records a tradition that St James celebrated that 
liturgy for the first time in Jerusalem in conformity with the order which he 
had heard from the Lord himself. Although the historicity of the story is 
questionable, the liturgy appears to have been drawn up shortly after the 
Council of Nicasa 3 in 325 and definitely before Chalcedon in 451. It is possible 
that its roots are even deeper in antiquity and, at any rate, its main lines must 
have been laid down much earlier in the patristic age. The background of 
that liturgy may throw light on its history and development. Coming from 
Jerusalem to Antioch, it seems to have ousted the old Antiochene rite and 
was put into Greek and Syriac, both being used at first with little or no dis¬ 
crimination. Antioch, it must be remembered was the centre of that traditional 
tug-of-war between the forces of Hellenization inherited from the Seleucids 
on the one side and the native Syrian anti-Hellenism on the other. The first 
became identified in the Christian period with Byzantine orthodoxy, a kind 
of ‘Cassaro-papism’, as against the growing nationalist Syrian or Semitic diver¬ 
gence destined to lead to the fifth-century Monophysite rupture with the 
Melkite, or royalist, party. This was reflected in the liturgical metamorphosis. 
Whereas the Hellenic party was thus steadily byzantinizing the liturgy, the 
Syrians spontaneously reacted by clinging more and more to the original pure 
Syriac of St James. In fact, the process of substituting the Greek Liturgy of 
St Basil for that of St James was complete in Antioch by the thirteenth century, 
while the Syrians adapted the text of St James to their Monophysite teachings 
and enriched it with a great many new Syriac anaphoras outside the old 
capital. 4 

Without going into the details of that great liturgy, it must be admitted 
that it has all the makings of the early traditions when paganism and Christi¬ 
anity still intermingled. Hence, there is first the Liturgy of the Catechumens, 
open to the unbaptized as well as those who received baptism. After the dis¬ 
missal of the catechumens, the celebrant went on with the central liturgy of 
the Faithful (A lissa fidelhwi ), intended only for the baptized who could partake 
of the Eucharist. This contains the Trisagioti , that is, ‘Holy art Thou O Lord, 
Holy O Mighty, Holy O Immortal’, together with the much contended 

1 Etheridge, pp. 188-91, enumerates forty-one Syriac liturgies; and Brightman, 'Liturgies 
LLastern and Western (Oxford, 1896), pp. lviii—lxiii, mentions sixty-four anaphoras; on 
Syrian Rite see pp. 4-110. Bishop Scverius Jacob, op. cit., in Orthodoxy , loc. cit., gives a 
total of some eighty anaphoras. For Jacobite liturgies rendered into Latin, sec Rcnaudot, 
Liturgiarum orientalium collection 2 vols. (Paris, 1716), II 45 ff. 

2 Cf. Fortescue, p. 346. 

3 Etheridge, p. 195, notes that the word ‘consubstantiaP was used for the first time at 
Nictea, thus fixing its date as a starting point for the liturgy. 

4 Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (3rd impression, London, 1947), pp. 
173-207, gives a scholarly exposition of the Syrian tradition. 

224 * FAITH and culture 

Monophysite clause, ‘Thou who wast crucified for us.’ 1 Amongst his interest¬ 
ing Syrian experiences, the traveller Oswald Parry 2 recounts a curious cere¬ 
mony which he witnessed in the course of the Liturgy of St James on 
Whit-Sunday. After the sermon, the deacons chanted and abruptly stopped, 
feigning slumber. Then each man tapped his neighbour on the shoulder as if 
to wake him, while the priest prayed and sprinkled water on the congregation 
with an olive branch. This was thrice repeated to signify the gift of the Holy 
Spirit, symbolized by water, to the sleeping members of Christ’s church. The 
drama of the liturgy seemed very real to those ardent worshippers. 

It is beyond our limitations to attempt a full appraisal of the impact of this 
forceful liturgy on other liturgies of a later date, both Eastern and Western. 
Nevertheless, an illustration of how far the Syrian influence must have 
travelled even in the West at an early date may be quoted from the use of the 
Trisagion in Gaul, probably from a Spanish source. Towards the beginning of 
the seventh century, in the lifetime of St Gaugericus, bishop of Cambrai, the 
Bobbio Missal plainly implies that this should be recited in the Gallican use 
with the Syrian Monophysite ‘interpolation’, ‘Who wast crucified for us’, to 
be followed by the threefold Kyrie elds on of the Syriac St James. 3 

The Jacobites keep the usual hours from matins to compline, which they 
describe as the ‘protection prayer’ ( suttara ) before retiring. Their calendar is 
based on the old Julian system 4 of reckoning, exactly like the Copts. Also like 
the Copts, they cross themselves from left to right. Their fasts include, in 
addition to Wednesdays and Fridays, five others: the ‘great fast’ of Lent lasts 
forty-nine days before Easter; the ‘little fast’ of Advent is forty days before 
Christmas; the Fast of Nineveh occupies three days from the Monday of the 
third week before Lent; the Fast of the Apostles totals fifty days after Pente¬ 
cost; and the Fast of the Virgin Mary is observed for fifteen days from the 
beginning of August. They strictly enforce the Mosaic food ordinances, for¬ 
bidding all animal food and its extracts. 5 

The Jacobites do not believe in the doctrine of purgatory, but they pray 
for the dead and say that the good souls are led by angels to paradise, whereas 
the souls of sinners are kept by demons until the day of judgment. They have 
no filioque in the Creed. Their agreement with the Copts on the sacraments 
is complete. They celebrate the eucharistic liturgy only on Sundays and feast 
days. They are very sparing in the use of icons. Arabic has made its incursions 
on the liturgy, which has become bilingual except in the Syriac-speaking 

1 Parry, p. 339; Fortcscuc, p. 348. 2 Six Months , p. 341. 

2 Dix, pp. 466-7. 

4 Except in America, where they have adopted the Western system for reasons of 

expediency. 5 Parry, p. 345. 


Art and Architecture 

The thesis advanced by some scholars that a Jacobite Church has little or 
nothing of special interest to offer the archaeologist 1 or the art historian is 
undoubtedly based on two false assumptions. The first is that the Jacobite 
church as an institution begins with Jacob Baradaeus in the sixth century and 
has no roots further in the past, and the second is the imperfect view that 
the village chapels of the impoverished communities of northern Syria or 
upper Mesopotamia are the true representatives of the art and architecture 
of the Syrian Jacobites. This outlook, however, must be repudiated as un- 
historical, since the Jacobites are known to be the descendents of the west 
Syrians whose ancient patriarchate predates Jacob Baradacus at Antioch with 
roots deep in the Apostolic age. The whole picture accordingly changes and 
it would therefore be erroneous to detach the Jacobites from their ancestral 
heritage in the general Syrian framework of the early Antiochene school. The 
fact that the West Syrian Church with its Monophysite nationalism was out¬ 
lawed by the Greeks and gradually pushed back by Byzantine imperialism 
from the shores of the Levant into the mountainous region now known as 
Tur- f AbdIn, should not mislead us into the belief that the Jacobites were a 
different race from the builders of the monumental Christian heritage of 
northern Syria in both the spiritual and material domains. Antioch was of 
course the area where the two schools of thought, Byzantine and Syriac, con¬ 
verged; and one has to be very careful in separating the output of two different 
viewpoints, both in theology and in art and architecture, both before and 
after Chalcedon. The theology of Severus of Antioch must be distinguished 
from Melkite ideas, just as we have to segregate the famous Byzantine 
mosaics of Antioch from the Syrian stone architecture which filled the country¬ 
side between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates with magnificent cities 
and structures. Indeed, whole cities of singular beauty spotted the North 
Syrian countryside, the work of the native Syrian master builders which 
vanished rapidly after the Arab conquest. Discarded by their early Christian 
inhabitants, they completely fell into ruin and were forgotten. It was not until 
the last few decades of our time that the attention of the archxologist was 
drawn to these relinquished areas, and their discovery has been one of the 
most remarkable events in the history of early Christian architecture. 2 They 

1 See, for example, Fortescue, p. 344. 

2 The father of archeological work in this area is the Marquis Melchior de Vogue, 
whose activities there date as far back as 1862. Ilis splendid work Syrie Centrale: Archi¬ 
tecture civile et religleuse dul er an VII e siecle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1865-77), is monumental and still a 
fundamental reference, especially as some of the structures recorded therein have already 
disappeared. The archaeological work was resumed in expeditions from Princeton, where 
several relevant publications have appeared by H. C. Butler: (1) Publications of an American 


have come to be known as the ‘dead cities’ of northern Syria. Dispersed in 
the plains extending east from Antioch towards Edessa and north to the 
Syrian Gates on the lower edge of the Taurus Mountains, the remains of 
those silent cities stood with half-ruined walls, towers, arches, vaults, ranges 
of houses, stone pavements, pillars, carved stone, forums and magnificent 
church buildings. They flourished roughly from the first to the seventh 
century and were great monuments of a Christian society which did not hide 
in catacombs, but developed an ecclesiastical architecture which surpassed 
anything else in existence before Justinian’s St Sophia in Constantinople. 
The rise and sudden disappearance of those cities are phenomena which 
may be explained by the trade activities between East and West in later 
antiquity and the early Middle Ages prior to the Arab Conquest. They are 
situated at the great juncture of the trade routes from East Asia, India, the 
Persian Gulf, the upper Euphrates and Arabia converging in the borderland 
of Anatolia, where the merchants of Europe and the Byzantine empire met 
the traders of the East. They thus owed their apparent opulence as trade 
centres to this East-West commerce. 1 When the influx of trade was stopped 
by the emergence of the Arab empire, and the interchange between East and 
West was no more possible, these cities were deserted and fell into swift 
decay. In fact, Antioch itself, the ancient capital of the Seleucid empire and 
the ecclesiastical capital of the East, fell into a second-rate position and began 
to shrink with bewildering rapidity. 

A survey of the ancient history of Syria shows how much its pre-Christian 
civilization was under the influence of foreign cultures, from the Egyptian 
in the south to the Greek from the north. It would appear that the Syrian 

Expedition to Syria in 1899-1900 (New York and London, 1903); (2) Syria: Publications 
of the Princeton Archceological Expeditions to Syria in 1904-j and 1909 (Leiden, 1910-20); 
(3) Early Churches in Syria , Fourth to Seventh Centuries , ed. E. Baldwin Smith (Princeton, 
1929). See also J. Strzygowski, L’ancien art chretien de Syrie (Paris, 1936); A. Mattern, 
A. travers les Villes Mortes de Haute Syrie , Melanges de l’Universite Saint-Joseph, T. XVII 
(Beirut, 1933); J. Lassus, Sanctuaires chretiens de Syrie , Bibliotheque archeologique et 
historique, Institut Frangais de Beyrouth, T. XLII (Paris, 1947); G. Tchalenko, Villages 
antiques de la Syrie de Nord-Ee Massif de Belus a Pepoque romaine , 2 vols. (Paris, 1953). 
The more recent traveller Jules Leroy, Moines et Monas teres de Proche-Orient (Paris, 1958), 
gives an impassioned account of those sites on pp. 166 et seq. Jules Leroy’s work has 
recently been translated into English by Peter Collin under the title: Monks and Monasteries 
of the Near East (London, 1963). References to it on the following pages are made to the 
French original. Of a more general nature, the following works include references of 
interest for various facets of the subject: F. Van Dcr Meer and Christine Mohrmann, 
Atlas of the Early Christian World , English tr. Mary F. Hcdlund and H. H. Rowley (Lon¬ 
don, 1958); W. Lowric, Art in the Early Church (New York, T947); L’ Art et P Homme, 
cd. Rene Huyghe, 2 vols. (Paris, 1958). 

1 Leroy, p. 181, states that those cities owed their wealth to the commerce in the olives 
of the Lebanese and Syrian mountains. But of course so much wealth could not be forth¬ 
coming from this sole produce, and. the fact is that all Eastern trade poured from Asia 
into those terminal trade emporia. 


people were able to find themselves only after the dawn of the Christian era, 
when they developed an architecture of their own which reached its peak in 
their ecclesiastical establishments. Innumerable churches and basilicas of great 
size and beauty are still standing almost intact in those extinct Syrian cities. 
In fact, some of them lack nothing but a roof and minor repairs and restora¬ 
tion to make them again usable. Amongst those splendid specimens are the 
churches at Serjilla, Kharab Shams, Qalota, Roueiha and Mshabbak, all from 
the fourth and fifth centuries. Practically all of them consist of a narthex, nave 
and aisles separated by two rows of six columns each, and a sanctuary with 
a splendid apse behind the altar. 1 The immense sixth-century basilicas at Qalb 
Lozeh and Rosafah 2 are veritable architectural feats with their tremendous 
semicircular arches supported by columns and supporting domes. All are 
built of perfectly hewn limestone from the Syrian quarries. The sides of doors 
and windows are usually fluted, and there are exquisite samples of decorative 
stonecarving in bas-reliefs. These may be seen on lintels and around entrances 
and apses at Dair Mishmish, Qalb Lozeh and elsewhere. 3 Capitals of out¬ 
standing beauty in design from the fifth and sixth centuries have been col¬ 
lected from the churches and cathedrals of Brad, Dar Qita, Me r ez, Rosafah, 
Jeradeh, Dana, Kimar, El-Bara and Kokanaya. 4 

With the introduction of monasticism in Syria, many monasteries and 
monastic settlements and cities arose as a consequence. Names of places indi¬ 
cate their existence in many regions of northern Syria. The words Dair, Qasr 
and QaPah, meaning convent, palace and castle, invariably signify the remains 
of a monastic establishment. Thus we have Dair Mishmish (Apricot Monas¬ 
tery), Dair or QaPat Sam'an (St Simeon’s Monastery), Qasr al-Banat (Vir¬ 
gins’ Palace, i.e., nunnery), Dair Sita and so forth. Undoubtedly the finest 
achievement in the monastic group of buildings is that of QaPat SanTan 
situated on a hill bearing the saint’s name by the road from Antioch to Aleppo. 

That magnificent architectural landmark was begun during the lifetime of 
the first of the great stylites, St Simeon the Older, that is before 459, the year 
of his death. The saint’s fame spread far and wide throughout the ancient 
world, and pilgrims from all parts of Syria, Arabia, Persia, Mesopotamia and 
Egypt as well as the Byzantine empire, Italy, Gaul, Brittany and Spain 
thronged around his pillar in endless streams to see that spiritual athlete and 
to receive his blessings. Hostelries were constructed on and at the foot of his 
mountain for housing those pious wanderers in addition to the monastic 
settlement of disciples already within reach of the pillar. The influx of visitors 
continued increasingly even after the saint’s death. Though his precious 

1 Lassus, Plates I, VII, VIII, IX and X. 

2 Ibid., Plates XI, XII, XVII. 

3 Ibid., Plates XX, XXXV, XLVI, LIV, LV, LVI. 

4 Ibid., Plates L-LIII. 


remains, coveted by all authorities, were transferred to Antioch and subse¬ 
quently to Constantinople, pilgrims cherished the site and emblem of his 
sanctity and came to pray around his pillar. In the end, Emperor Zeno (d. 491) 
rendered the greatest homage to the saint’s memory by ordering the con¬ 
struction of a [great basilica around the column. Accordingly, the Syrian 
architects, all anonymous and self-denying, seized the opportunity to give 
vent to their pious aspirations in the realization and accomplishment of one 
of the most wonderful and most elaborate architectural enterprises of Christ¬ 
ian antiquity before St Sophia in the reign of Justinian. The builders of St 
Simeon’s were the sons and heirs of the men whose genius had earlier pro¬ 
duced another miracle in Roman times - the temple of Baalbek. Begun in 476, 
this new and immense undertaking, comprising more than one hundred 
thousand square feet of stone buildings, was completed in 490. The outcome 
surpassed all expectation, both as a work of great skill and as a concrete ex¬ 
pression of profound faith. It proved to be the perfect systhesis of all that 
was beautiful in the creative art and architecture of the old Syrians. 1 

The architects had a dual object. While building a martyrion around the 
saint’s pillar, they aimed at the construction of a cathedral or a series of 
basilicas for the celebration of divine worship. Thus starting with the martyr- 
ion in the form of a vast octagon around the stylite’s column, they decided to 
erect four rectangular churches springing from the octagon and, together, 
taking the shape of a monumental Cross. The central octagon was eighty-five 
feet in width. Its eight sides were topped by considerable arches resting on 
pink marble columns with Corinthian capitals. In the middle stood the rock- 
hewn base of the historic pillar, above which was once an impressive dome. 
Each of the four basilicas is oriented towards one of the cardinal directions. 
Each consists of a spacious central nave and two aisles, the naves opening 
into the octagon. The eastern basilica is the largest of the four branches, with 
nine bays as against seven in the other three. Further, it terminates in a 
sanctuary with a large central apse behind the high altar and two smaller 
apses on the sides. Apparently the liturgy was celebrated in that part, while 
the other three basilicas were used by the pilgrims for individual prayer and 

1 Lassus, pp. 129-37 and Plates XXIV-XXVI; Vogue, Syrie, pp. 141-53; H. C. Butler, 
American Archaeological Expedition to Syria (New York, 1903), 184, and the Princeton 
Expedition (see above, pp. 225-6, n. 2) II, 281. Sec also by H. C. Butler, Early Churches in 
Syria, 4th to yth centuries , cd. and completed E. Baldwin Smith (Princeton, 1949), pp. 100-5; 
M. Ecochard, Ee sanctuaire de Qal'at Sentan. Bull. d’Etudcs Orientales VI (Damascus, 
1937); D. Krcnckcr, Die Wallfahrtskirche dcs Simeon Stylites in Kal'at Sim'an, Abhandlungen 
dcr Prcussischen Akademie dcr Wissenschaften (Berlin, 1939); Id. W. Beyer, Der Syrische 
Kirchenbau (Berlin, 1925), pp. 281 ct seq. Van Der Mccr (pp. 102-3, 171) has reproduced 
impressive pictures of the ruins of St Simeon’s Monastery, followed (pp. 104-5) by others 
from Dair I urmanin and Qalb Lozch Basilica as well as Dair Sita’s hexagonal baptistry, 
all not later than the sixth century. The plates in the present book show examples of 
various churches. 


other religious functions. Free access to all parts of the buildings was made 
possible by twenty-seven entrances on all sides. The four main portals stood 
within an arched porch, or narthex, to the south rather than the customary 
orientation to the west, this being dictated by the land configuration of the 
mountain summit. On the other hand, the architect conformed to the tradi¬ 
tion of placing the altar eastward so that worshippers might face the rising 
sun, emblem of the risen Christ. 

The vast floors, it must be assumed, had been laid with Byzantine coloured 
mosaics and the walls covered with radiant frescoes. But no imagination is 
needed for an appraisal of the decorative art as represented in the magnificent 
stone mouldings around the arches and on the cornices. Here the Syrian 
sculptor adopted foliated and geometrical motifs. The acanthus leaf and the 
vine, so common in early Christian art, appeared in a multitude of places with 
exacting accuracy and a lofty sense of beauty. 

The area, though much dilapidated, still teems with features and other 
buildings of archaeological and architectural interest. The colonnades, under¬ 
structures, superstructures, architraves, windows by the score, exterior orna¬ 
mentation, subsidiary chapels, a convent, residential quarters, domestic 
buildings and more items complete the picture of a highly cosmopolitan 
settlement. The influence of Qafat SanTan on the art and architecture of both 
East and West, 1 though admittedly not inconsiderable, has not been suffi¬ 
ciently assessed as yet. Certain artistic phenomena in many countries leave 
no doubt as to how far Syrian influence travelled in the world. In the monas¬ 
tery of Our Lady of the Syrians 2 in the Wadi al-Natrun oasis on the desert 
road from Alexandria to Babylon (Old Cairo), the stone mouldings in some 
chapels belong to the same school as that of the great works of art on the walls 
of St Simeon’s and other early churches in Syria. In this particular case, we 
can of course conceive the Syrian monastic craftsman settling down amongst 
brother Monophysites and transporting to them the fruit of Syrian accom¬ 
plishment in the arts. It is hazardous to generalize on the link between the 
early Romanesque and Syrian architecture, but there are unmistakable paral¬ 
lels. In reality, the influence of Syria appears to have reached Europe at an 
early date through two channels. First, it must have followed the Syrian mer¬ 
chants of whom numbers are recorded in Italy and Gaul as early as the fourth 
century. 3 Secondly, certain ritual customs, such as the use of the prothesis and 
diaconicon seen at St Simeon’s basilica and other Syrian churches, were adopted 
in Visigothic architecture in Spain, apparently through North Africa. The 

1 Butler, 'Early Churches in Syria , pp. 260-4, gives an interesting though indecisive 
account of the origins and influence of Syrian art and architecture. 

2 Strzygowski, Art Chretien de Syrie , pp. 161-3, 173-8. 

3 Butler, p. 264, records an even earlier instance of a 3rd-ccnt. gravestone from Gcnay, 
France, with a bilingual inscription stating the death of a Syrian from Kanatha, identified 
as Kanawat in Hauran. 


same feature finally found its way to the early church of Silchester in England . 1 
It was natural that at a later date the imagination of the Crusader architects 
should be fired by the witness of such beauty in Syrian stone, and they must 
have carried back home with them new ideas which contributed to the 
development of ecclesiastical architecture, much the same as they did in the 
better-known field of military architecture. A modern traveller, Jules Leroy , 2 
declares that the Western eye, accustomed to the churches of Vezelay, Saint- 
Benoit-sur-Loire or Moissac, finds itself more at home with St Simeon’s than 
in the Byzantine churches. As to the interaction between Christian Syrian and 
mediaeval Islamic architecture and arabesque designs, the examples are far too 
numerous to be given here. The variance of scholarly opinion on dating the 
stone ornamentation of the extraordinary Mchatta frieze from the fifth cen¬ 
tury to the age of the Umayyad dynasty , 3 to quote just one instance, shows 
how much the early Christian Syrian art and the purely Islamic arabesque 
overlapped in character and quality. 

It would be interesting to follow the migration of those early Syrian styles 
from St Simeon’s and the dead cities east to the monasteries of Tur f AbdIn 
and upper Mesopotamia. But this is a task which no one can accomplish 
without excavating and at least partially restoring a few of the scores of 
ruined establishments in that area. Honigmann’s monograph on the historic 
monastery of Mar Barsauma , 4 the home of the mediaeval Jacobite patriarchs, 
including the chronicler Michael the Great, is a work of erudition without 
archaeological background. Some of the wealth of architectural material of 
Christian origin has been re-used, but mainly in Islamic foundations, as is 
evident in the magnificent pillars, capitals and friezes of the Great Mosque 5 of 
Amid (Diyarbekr). In northern Syria around Jabal SanTan and Jabal Baricha 
alone there existed towards the end of the sixth century at least eighty 

1 Butler op. cit. The parish and village of Silchester are situated ten miles from the 
city of Reading, Hampshire, England. 

2 He spent recently two years in the Middle East and visited, amongst other monastic 
centres, Qafat SanTan. See Moines et Monasteres du Proche-Orient, p. 193. 

3 This is one of the main items on which J. Strzygowski based his study Uancien art 
chretien de Syrie , in which he published a number of plates (I, IV, XIII, XIV, XV) of that 
frieze preserved in the Berlin Museum. The combination of floral, animal and bird motifs 
in stone sculpture that looks like flne lace is a peerless work of art. The use of the acanthus 
leaf and the vine branch with bunches of grapes is typically Christian. The animal and 
bird life is reminiscent of some of the best specimens of designs in the early Coptic 
textiles, and the borders represent the best forms of ornamentation described as arabesque. 
Strzygowski sees Iranian influence in this work of art ( Art Chretien , p. 89, 94-7); and 
Lassus ( Sanctuaires Chretiens , p. xxi) insists that the work is of Umayyad provenance and 
date. The fact remains that this was Syrian workmanship of the most exquisite kind, no 
matter to which century it belonged. 

4 Ilonigmann, Pe Convent de Barsauma et Je Patriarcat Jacobite d y Antioch e et de Syrie 
(Louvain, 1954). 

5 Strzygowski, pp. 143-5; M. van Bcrchcm and J. Strzygowski, Amida (Heidelberg 
and Paris, 1910), pp. 298 et seq. 


monasteries. 1 For Tur r Abc3ln and upper Mesopotamia it is impossible to 
furnish exact figures. Only a poor remnant of nine monasteries, reported by 
Parry 2 during the last decade of the last century, survives. Two of them are 
worthy of special note: Dair al-ZaTariin, until later years patriarchal residence 
after the end of Mar Barsauma’s Convent, and that of Shaikh Mattai, once 
the seat of maphrians of the East and a repository of learning. 

Dair al-Za r faran, or the Saffron Monastery, from the yellow tint of its stone 
walls is originally named after the founder of its present structure. Mar 
Hanania, bishop of Mardin in 793, though the Jacobites contend that this 
was only the second founding on a much older institution ascribed to Mar 
Augin, whose tomb still stands in its fourth-century martyr ion. It is generally 
called ‘Monastery of Mar Augin and the Twelve Thousand Saints’. 3 It is the 
only Jacobite monastery which has any considerable body of monks and all 
the features which ensure self-sufficiency. Enclosed within high walls of mas¬ 
sive masonry, it is fortress-like and surrounded by rich orchards. A huge 
square building on two levels, its cloisters are arched all round. The chief 
object of archaeological interest is its ancient church of Mar Ya f qub, probably 
built in the fourth century and certainly embellished by Emperor Anastasius 
(491-518), who had Monophysite leanings. It is in the traditional plan with 
three altars in the sanctuary, and the pillars are enriched with carved capitals 
and a fine floral frieze runs around the whole building. It has one dome and 
other semi-domes. Parry 4 records the Syrian custom of burying patriarchs in 
a sitting posture on their thrones side by side in large recesses, of which he 
counted eight in 1892. Almost all that remained of the rich library of the 
monastery was taken with the patriarch when he moved to Homs after the 
First World War. The Jacobites have introduced the use of the bell for calling 
to prayer instead of the old wooden simandron , which is now reserved for 
signalling refectory hours. 5 

1 Leroy, p. 194; cf. maps by Lassus in Sanctuaires Chretiens. 

2 Six Months , pp. 139, 186, 198, 201, 215, 323. These are Dair al-Za f faran, Dair Mar 
Quriaqos, Dair al-AIokhr, Dair al-'Omar and Dair Salib in Jcbel Tur, Mar Mattha near 
Mosul, Mar Jacob at Salah, Alar Abraham at Alidhiat - Tur r AbdIn, with its ecclesiastical 
capital Midhiat, has always been a centre of Jacobite monasticism, hence its name, which 
means the ‘Worshippers’ Mountain’. P. Kruger, Das syriscb-monophysitische Monchtum im 
Tur- A.b(b)dtn, p. 4, cites names of tw r enty monasteries in this area in addition to the 
Qartamin Alonastery (later in the Arab period known as Dair al-'Omar), which is the 
object of his dissertation. The eighteenth-century traveller Niebuhr recorded from hearsay 
seventy monasteries all in ruins. Some thirty-five villages with a total of about 4,000 
families are reported by Jules Leroy (cumgrano satis), p. 244, according to the Jacobite arch¬ 
bishop of Mardin in the last few years. Tur f Abdin is reckoned the Mount Athos of the 
Middle East. 

3 Leroy, p. 246. The fullest description of the monastery and life in it is given by Parry, 
pp. 103-40. Travellers have been attracted to it; see Gertrude L. Bell, The Churches and 
Monasteries of the Tur ' AT din, London, 1910. 

4 Six Months, p. 108. 

5 Ibid., note. 


The monastery of Mar Mattai, though of great antiquity, was systematically 
harassed by the Kurds and later restored. Thus the older buildings must have 
been changed considerably and many interesting archaeological features lost. 
It is built mainly of the rough concrete common in Mosul instead of stone 
from the mountain. Its outlook on the plains of Nineveh and Mosul, the size 
of its terraces, the tremendous dimensions of the building, its semicircular 
and pointed arches, its plain but ancient church where the remains of Bar 
Hebraeus are interred, its outer walls, retreats and gardens impress the traveller 
in spite of the absence of any active monastic life within this historic cenobium , 
now administered by a bishop and a few monks as a summer resort. The 
contents of its vast library are gone, either burnt in the Kurdish wars or 
stolen and sold to strangers. A limited number of manuscripts are still closely 
guarded by the bishop - a poor symbol of a glorious literary past. 

The Syrian artistic genius found a perfect expression in stone wall sculpture 
rather than statuary, though specimens of the latter are not entirely wanting. 
The Syrian Good Shepherd is always represented as a youthful figure with 
short curly hair. Icons and miniatures have also been made. The Syrians, 
however, were never great lovers of iconography and preferred to concentrate 
on the embellishment of manuscripts, which they produced in considerable 
numbers in the scriptoria of their great mediaeval convents. Although the 
wealth of Syrian miniatures extant has been greatly minimized by the succes¬ 
sive raids and arson in which heaps of priceless manuscripts in the Jacobite 
monasteries must have perished, the surviving specimens in the repositories 
of the East and West are sufficient to enable art scholars to construe the true 
picture of a hitherto neglected subject. From a recent enquiry into the Syriac 
manuscript collections, Jules Leroy 1 has published a small but representative 
number of impressive miniatures from the ancient Codex Kabulensis and the 
later mediaeval evangelia preserved in the Vatican and in Dair al-ZaTaran show T - 
ing the character and quality of the Syrian miniature. 

The Codex Kabulensis , since 1476 in the Laurentian collection at Florence, 
was written and illuminated in 586 by a monk of the North Syrian monastery 
of St John of Zagba, named Rabbula, that is, less than a century after the 
completion of St Simeon’s monastery and half a century before the advent 
of the Arabs. Its antiquity and the magnificence of its opening fourteen pages 
of ornamentation provide one of the most striking examples of the Asian 
Christian art of the Syrians in its purer form. 2 The Vatican Evangelion was 

1 Moines et monasteres du Vroche-Orient , pp. 199-201, 231-2, 251. 

2 Lavishly edited with full-size colour plates and commented upon by Carlo Cecchelli, 
Giuseppe Furlani and Mario Salmi under the title Uvangcliarii Syriaci , ltd go Rabbulae, 
in bibliotheca Medicea-'L.aurentiana (Plut. I, 56) Adservati Ornatnenta Udenda Notisque In- 
struenda (Oltun and Lausanne, 1959). The illustrations include Biblical scenes such as 
the Pentecost (fob 14b), Christ enthroned (14a), the Ascension (13b), the Crucifixion and 
the Holy Women at the Sepulchre, Canon Tables from the Old and New Testaments 


written on paper in 1220 by a monastic scribe of Mar Mattai called Mubarak 
and enriched by fifty-two miniatures for the weekly liturgy throughout the 
year. 1 Though the human figures are somewhat under Byzantine influence, 
the vivid colours, geometrical designs, ethnic features, brocade vestments, 
and oriental furniture reproduced by the artist bring those illustrations into 
perfect unison with the Islamic works of the schools of Ba gh dad and Mosul. 
It is thought that a studio existed at Mar Mattai for the duplication of those 
works of Eastern art, since a similar but unsigned copy of the same Uvangelion 
is also to be found in the British Museum. On the other hand, the manuscript 
of Dair al-ZaTaran completed by the scribe Dioscorus Theodorus between 
1222 and 1273, falls entirely under Byzantine influence save for the ethnic 
features of human representations. 2 

Syrian art found another expression in wall paintings, of which little is left. 
The monastery of Mar Behnam, several times exchanged between the Jaco¬ 
bites and the Chaledasans, has a row of stucco portraits of the greater person¬ 
alities in the history of monasticism, including St Antony, St Pachomius, 
St Daniel and others together with the images of Mar Mattai, Mar Behnam 
and his sister St Sarahin. An ancient chapel is dedicated to her. This pictorial 
art side by side with arabesque friezes, engravings and niches of the epoch 
of the Atabegs of Mosul offers a novel combination to be found chiefly in 
Syrian monuments. 3 

On the whole, however, the Syrian contribution was essentially limited to 
stone work and architectural design, though Syrian artists did not refrain 
from trying their skill in the minor arts. In this field, it appears that they 
depended more on their Monophysite neighbours the Copts and the Armen¬ 
ians. Nevertheless, a production such as the great Chalice of Antioch 4 is a 
magnificent example of their achievements in the lesser crafts. Discovered 
accidentally by Arabs digging a well in the neighbourhood of Antioch in 
1910, this object of singular beauty and archaeological importance was acquired 
in 1950 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and placed in the Cloisters in New 
York City after the establishment of its authenticity as an early mediaeval work 
of art. With its twelve human figures seated in the midst of vine branches and 

(3b-i2b), a letter from Eusebius to Carpianus (3a-2b), Eusebius of Cxsarca and Amonius 
of Alexandria (2a), the Holy Virgin in a shrine (ib), and the Apostles gathering for the 
election of a twelfth witness in the place of Judas. All are exquisite examples of the Syrian 
art of miniature at its best. These are preceded by a multitude of other illustrative material 
from other sources, both in colour and in black and white, which enhance the value of 
the work. Lowrie, PI. 136-7, reproduces six pages reduced in black and white together 
with a note on the Rabula Gospel, pp. 205-6. We are able here to reproduce a 
representative sample of this great codex (see Plate XVI). 

1 Leroy, Plate 46, portraits of Ammonius and Eusebuis. 

2 Ibid., Plates 51 and 52, Transfiguration and the Forty Martyrs of Scbastia respectively. 

3 Ibid., Plates 56 and 57, Annunciation and the Resurrection of Lazarus. 

4 Ibid., pp. 239-41, also Plate 54 showing sculptures around entrance and niche. 

234 * faith and culture 

grape clusters, baskets, birds and animals, this great chalice is an artistic prize 
of the highest order and a demonstration of skill and exquisite taste. 1 Although 
the seated figures are similar in body, the faces are distinct and each has its own 
personality. The central figures on both sides are those of the youthful Christ 
and of the mature Christ and Saviour. 2 Each of the other ten figures may be 
identified through a symbol scratched on his chair. Thus St Luke has a tree, 
the emblem of life; St Mark has the water jug of the Last Supper; St Peter, 
facing St Paul, has the keys; remaining figures are those St Jude, St James 
the Lesser and St James the Greater, St Andrew, St Matthew and St John. 
A Roman eagle with outspread wings stands on a basket of loaves underneath 
the platform where Jesus is seated, symbolizing the Roman empire partaking 
of the blessings of Christianity. To the right of the Lord is the Lamb with 
head turned back to Him. The Star of Bethlehem shines over Christ’s ex¬ 
tended right hand. Grapes fill the remaining loops harmoniously without 
show of overcrowding. A dove over Christ’s head represents the Holy Ghost. 
The rabbit so common in early Christian art also appears on the goblet 
nibbling at a grape cluster. Other items are a butterfly, a grasshopper, two 
snails and a plate of loaves and fish, with a band of fifty-seven rosettes and a 
six-pointed star just under the rim. On comparison with similar objects some 
historians and archaeologists have advocated the theory that the Great Chalice 
of Antioch may belong to the last three decades of the first century of our 
era, while others more authoritatively place it in the fourth or fifth centuries. 3 

The flourishing of Syrian Christian civilization at the time of the decline 
and fall of the Roman empire was a natural phenomenon. While the West 
was trampled under the heels of the barbarian invader, Syria enjoyed a peace¬ 
ful spell in its history, and except for theological controversies and subsequent 

1 G. A. Eisen, The Great Chalice of Antioch (New York, 1933); J. J. Rorimer, The Authen¬ 
ticity of the Chalice of Antioch, repr. from Art and Literature for Belle Da Costa Greene, ed. 
Dorothy Miner (Princeton, 1954), pp. 161-8; Bayard Dodge, ‘The Chalice of Antioch’, 
in Bull, of the Near East, III (May-June, 1950); C. R. Morey, ‘The Antioch Chalice’, in 
Art Studies , III (1925), pp. 73-80; J. Strzygowski, Ancien art chretien de Syrie (Paris, 1936), 
pp. 23 et seq. See also Plate XIX in this volume. 

2 Height from base of chalice, 7-26 in., or approx. 19 cm.; diameter of cup about the 
same. Its capacity is two and a half quarts of liquid, which is the normal volume of a 
Passover Cup; Eisen, p. 7. 

3 Coloured full-size picture of chalice in Eisen’s frontispiece as well as details of each 
figure in black and white within the text. Christ’s figure in both images is young and 
beardless in accordance with the Syrian tradition. The dual imagery on vessels is Roman 
in character. Eisen (p. 9) cites an example of 79 a.d. where Augustus appears as a man 
on one side of the cup and a boy on the other. Fuller portraits of Christ, Apostles and 
Evangelists are published in a de luxe two-volume edition. The Great Chalice of Antioch 
(New York, 1923) was published by the original owner Fahim Kouchakji. Van Der 
Mecr, p. 104, has reproduced a silver vase of the fifth century from Emesa (Homs) in 
Syria with images of Christ, Peter and Paul inside clipei , or shields or medallions, some¬ 
what reminiscent of the work on the Antiochene chalice though not as elaborate; the 
latter vase is now in the Louvre. See also L’ Art et THomme, II, 96. 


schisms, it reaped the bountiful fruits of commerce flowing from East to 
West. The 'dead cities’ of northern Syria arose chiefly as trade centres. The 
Syrian, like the Phoenician, was noted for his ability in handling commerce 
and international transactions. The end of antiquity and the birth of the 
Middle Ages were for Syria, unlike Europe, periods of spiritual, material and 
artistic progress which were dimmed only by its isolation after the rise of the 
Arab empire and the decay of its prosperous trade. Even then, the Syrian 
artist channelled his ingenuity in the service of the Arabs to the development 
of another great culture and a new civilization. 1 

1 Eisen, p. 15. 





The Nestorian 1 2 Church, otherwise known as East Syrian, derived its name 
in mediaeval times from Nestorius, who became bishop of Constantinople 
in the year 428. Strictly speaking, that Church could trace its origins even 
further back than the reign of Nestorius and the age of the oecumenical 
councils as a whole. The seeds of Syrian Christianity had been sown in 
Jerusalem during the Apostolic age, and the contention has been made that 
the first bishop of the Syrian Church was none other than St James, one of 
the Twelve Apostles identified as ‘St James the Less’ and described in the 
Holy Scripture as a Brother of Jesus. In those early days, primitive Christ¬ 
ians had not yet fallen into the nationalist separatism and political disaffection 
which eventually broke the universal Apostolic church into independent units. 
It was not until the condemnation of Bishop Nestorius in the course of the 
fifth century that the East Syrians appeared as one of those emerging units 
and identified themselves with Nestorian Diophysitism. 

As a special community, the East Syrians roughly held their habitat along¬ 
side the mobile frontier between the Roman and Persian empires in Asia. 
This coincided in general terms with the boundaries of modern Turkey, Iraq 
and Iran, though religiously they remained an integral part of the wider 
Syrian Church during the first four centuries of our era. The early bishops of 
that Church were essentially Judaistic, owing mainly to the fact that the 
heralds of the most ancient Christianity were Jewish. As time went on and 
the work of evangelization influenced other nations and races, the gentile 

1 The appellation ‘Nestorian’, though never objectionable to the members of this sect, 
came to be used in official or semi-official documents of the Church only in the thirteenth 
century when Mar f Abd-Ishu', Metropolitan of Nisibis, formulated ‘The Orthodox 
Creed of the Nestorians’ in the year 1298; G. P. Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals , 

2 vols. (London, 1852), pp. 49-51. The Arabic mediaeval literature of the Abbasid period 
cited these Christians as Nastiiriya and Nasatirah. The terms Chaldxans and Assyrians 
had long been used, although the former is now taken to mean the Uniate branch, while 
the latter has been brought into prominence by the Anglican missionaries of the nineteenth 
century to evade heretical incrimination by the use of the word Nestorian. 


element soon became preponderant in the Church. Thus, converts from the 
West, both Roman and Byzantine, began to relinquish the tradition of a 
Judaistic episcopate and envisaged independent policies which led to a rupture 
between East and West. The first outcome of the new position was the transfer 
of the episcopal see to Antioch, where the Byzantines wanted to free them¬ 
selves from Jewish influence in Jerusalem and transplant the church govern¬ 
ment to a Greek centre. In this way the Christian church inaugurated those 
Eastern and Western leanings which reflected themselves increasingly in the 
lives of the faithful. In Asia, the issue resolved itself at the outset in the 
freedom of the gentile elements from Judaistic superiority. In regard to 
Antiochene orthodox Christianity, a number of offshoots arose within gentile 
ranks. At first the absence of affinity between the Greek and the Syrian 
resulted in a duality of the episcopate of Antioch. Next, that splintering 
affected the Syrians, who became sub-divided into two separate denomina¬ 
tions: the Syrian Church, comprising the West Syrian clans, and the East 
Syrian Church, whose membership spread eastward of Syria into eastern 
Anatolia, Kurdistan, upper Mesopotamia and Persia. While the one became 
utterly Monophysite and was later identified as the Jacobite Church, the other 
began to swing towards Diophysitism, or Nestorianism since the first oecu¬ 
menical council of Ephesus (431), and preferred to be described as Assyrian 
rather than just Syrian. In this manner, the Assyrian or East Syrian branch of 
the Church came into being paradoxically as the champion of a heretic doctrine 
of Greek origin while it was striving to purge itself of all vestiges of Greek 
ecclesiastical authority. Unlike the Antiochenes who used a Greek liturgy, 
the Assyrians, or would-be Nestorians, continued to speak a particular dialect 
of Aramaic known later as Syriac and persisted in the use of their ancient 
liturgy in the same language. In fact, they were protected from Greek prac¬ 
tices and Byzantine encroachments by their very existence within the confines 
of the Persian empire. Relentlessly pursued by the Greeks, they therefore 
found their haven of peace in Persia, the inveterate enemy of Byzantium, and 
so they started looking eastward rather than westward for opportunities. 
Like the frontiersmen in American history, a whole world lay ahead of them 
for spiritual expansion. This, together with their austere monastic discipline 
and an infinite zeal for the propagation of their faith, may help to account for 
the medixval glories of their Church throughout the continent of Asia. The 
flame of their missionary activities was carried far and wide into Persia, 
Turkestan, China and India at a time when Cathay was as far from Western 
imagination as the moon. It is no exaggeration to contend that, in the early 
Middle Ages the Nestorian Church was the most widespread in the whole 
world. The staggering rapidity of the rise of the Nestorians in Asia is equalled 
only by the rapid decline of their influence in the later Middle Ages. Their 
world was drowned in a surging sea of Islam, and the enlightened tolerance of 


the early caliphate gave way to fierce fanaticism of newly Islamized dynasties 
under which the Nestorian chance was lost forever. When Nestorians were 
rediscovered in the last century or two, their villages were clustered in the 
mountain fastnesses of Kurdistan around Lake Urmia. Their numbers were 
depleted, their wealth limited, and their ignorance was phenomenal. Yet they 
represented one of the most enlightened chapters in Christian history, sanctity 
and scholarship. They had suffered persecution after persecution to the extent 
that one of their authors, writing in English about the story of his own kins¬ 
folk and church, published his book under the title Death of a Nation. 1 Indeed, 
the systematic extermination of the Nestorians is comparable in a way to that 
of the Incas, Aztecs or other Indian tribes in the blackest annals of the New 
World. With these generalizations in mind, let us outline the triumphs and 
the tribulations of that Church. 

Most of our knowledge comes from secondary literature, and it must be 
remembered that works on the Nestorian Church have been composed by 
either Catholic or Protestant authors who approach it either as dissident, 
schismatic and heretic or retrogressive and antiquated. Unfortunately, modern 
reforming attempts ended in tragedy, and the only way out of the impasse of 
the Nestorians seemed to be through proselytizing either to Catholicism or 
to Protestantism. As a rule, foreign writers on the subject tended to demon¬ 
strate little constructive sympathy for and less understanding of that church; 
and the literature from within 1 2 its own ranks is scanty and thin. Nevertheless, 
numerous works from the patristic age include useful gleanings on its early 
history, 3 and it is not difficult to construe a reasonably good picture of such 
items as the Edessene school or the evangelizing impact of the Nestorian 
missionary in the high Middle Ages. It would, however, seem hard in the 
earliest records to disentangle the Assyrian church completely from its Syrian 
sister, identified later as Jacobite in the annals of primitive Christianity. Both 
shared the same fortunes in antiquity, and the patrology of both was identical 
at least in their first four centuries. They used the same liturgy and scripture 
in the same Syriac language without distinction or discrimination. As the 
Nestorians grew more and more isolated in later times their history was 
obscured through lack of records and archival material, and their community 

1 Abraham \ uhannan; see following note. The last chapter in Nestorian history has been 
compiled by a young Nestorian scholar, John Joseph, in his The Nestorians and their Mus¬ 
lim Neighbors, A. Study of Western Influence on their Kclations (Princeton, 1961). Sec also 
R. Strothmann, Heutiges Orientchristcntum und Schicksal des Assyrcr’, in Zcitschrift 
fur Kirchengeschichte , LV (1936), 17-82. 

2 The best-known examples of literature from within arc: W. C. Emhardt and George 
AT. Lamsa, 1 he Oldest Christian People — A Brief Account of the History and Traditions of the 
Assyrian People and the Pateful History of the Nestorian Church (New York, 1926); Abraham 
Yuhannan, 1 he Death of a Nation, or, I he liver Persecuted Nestorians or Assyrian Christians 
(New York, 1916). 

3 Cf. following notes on source material. 


became forgotten until their existence was accidentally revealed by the 
Western missionary in a spectacular manner. Though a fair amount of work 1 
has been done to clarify their position in the story of Christianity in Asia, it 
would appear that the definitive history of the Nestorian Church from its 
remote origins to the present day still remains to be written. This essay is 
only a modest attempt to give an abridged account from the available 
sources and the secondary literature of their involved and long career. 

Age of Legend 

Assyrian or Syriac traditions link the establishment of Syrian Christianity 
with the earliest Apostolic age. Some even assert that the evangelization of 
Edessa occurred within the lifetime of Jesus Christ himself. Accordingly, the 
Nestorians promoted three legends in support of that contention while relat¬ 
ing them to Assyrian origins, namely the episode of the three Magi and their 
visit to the Infant Jesus, the story of King Abgar of Edessa, and the Acts of 
St Thomas the Apostle. 

In the first place they submit that since the three Magi were apparently 
Aramaic-speaking, they could have come only from the kingdom of Urhai 
or Edessa, which alone retained its autonomy and Aramaic language amidst 
a conglomeration of other principalities with other languages wedged between 
the two great empires of Parthia in the East and Rome in the West. An even 
more picturesque episode was recounted by the Assyrians to the effect that, 
on his retirement from the world to a lonely cave in the seventh century b.c., 
Zoroaster had a great vision of such divine laws, principles and morals as 
could be found only in the teachings of the Christian religion. It is said that 
his prophecy stipulated, amongst other things, that a number of Magi from 
his priestly caste should proceed under the guidance of divine light to the 

1 Here is a list to be supplemented from following notes: W. F. Adeney, The Greek and 
Eastern Churches (Edinburgh, 1908); D. Attwater, The Christian Churches of the East, 2 vols. 
(Milwaukee, 1947-8); G. P. Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals, 2 vols. (London, 
1852); F. C. Burkitt, Early Christianity (London, 1904); Mrs C. E, Couling, The Luminous 
Religion - A. Study of Nestorian Christianity in China with a Translation of the Inscriptions upon 
the Nestorian Tablet (repr. from the Chinese Recorder, LV [1924], 215-24, 308-17, with in¬ 
scription tr. Prof. Sacki of Tokyo; London, 1925); R. Etteldorf, The Catholic Church in the 
Middle East (New York, 1959); J. Foster, The Church of the T’ang Dynasty (London, 1939); 
R. Janin, Ees eglises orientales et les rites orientaux (Paris, 1926); B. J. Kidd, The Churches of 
Eastern Christendom (London, 1927); J. Labourt, Le Christianisme dans Tempire perse sous la 
dynastie sassanide, 224-632 a.d. (Paris, 1904); J. Leroy, Moines et monasteres de Troche-Orient 
(Paris, 1958); F. Loofs, Nestoriana (Halle, 1905); P. Rondot, Les Chretiens d'Orient (Paris, 
1955); J. Stewart, Nestorian Missionary Enterprise - The Story of a Church on Fire (Edinburgh, 
1928); W. A. Wigram, An Introduction to the History of the Assyrian Church, or The Church 
of the Sassanid Empire, 100-640 a.d. (London, 1910); A. C. Moulc, Christians in China 
before the Year ijjo (London, 1930). 


great One who was empowered to rule the whole world. During their cap¬ 
tivity, the Aramaic-speaking Jews interpreted Zoroaster’s vision as that of 
the coming of the Messiah who was destined to rule the world as king of the 
jews. Those Magi, however, according to Assyrian traditions, were not just 
three in number, but twelve divided into three groups of four - a gold- 
bearing group consisting of Arvandid, son of Artiban, Hormsed son of Satros, 
Cosnasap son of Gonapar, and Arshak son of Mahros; a myrrh-bearing 
group of Zarandar son of Warzod, Akreho son of Kesro, Arbakchest son of 
Kolite, and Ashtonkakodon son of Sheshron; and the frankincense bearers, 
being Mahros son of Kohram, Aksherosh son of Kashan, Sadlak son of 
Baldan, and Merodak son of Bildad. 1 

The second famous legend is that of Abgar V the Black ( Ukkorna or 
Uchomo ), King of Urhai or Edessa, who exchanged letters with Jesus Christ. 
Though its historicity is questionable, the Abgar story has made its way to 
the earliest Christian literature and, as such, it claims a place on these pages. 
It is said that Abgar dispatched an embassy to Sabinus, the Roman governor 
of Eleutheropolis in Palestine. The Edessene ambassadors, Mariyab and 
Shamshagram together with a certain notary called Hannan the Scribe, while 
passing through Jerusalem on their return journey, learned of a new prophet 
who healed the sick. At once they conceived the idea that that prophet might 
heal their leprosy-stricken king, to whom they conveyed the good tidings. 
Abgar would have gone to Jerusalem for this purpose, had not his way been 
barred by Roman territory extending between Edessa and Jerusalem. So he 
decided to send a special envoy in the person of Hannan with a letter inviting 
Jesus to come to his kingdom to heal him and to preach the new faith to his 
people. This apocryphal epistle and Jesus’ answer are cited in Greek by 
Eusebius, 2 bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century and in Syriac in the work 
entitled Doctrines of Addai 3 by an anonymous author who also wrote towards 
the end of the fourth century. So famous did this story become throughout 
Christendom that versions of it have been found not only in Greek and 
Syriac 4 but also in Latin, Armenian 5 and Arabic. 6 Let us quote the less 

1 Emhardt and Lamsa, pp. 23-5. 2 Eusebius, I, xiii. 

3 Burkitt, Early Eastern Christianity, pp. 11 et scq. 

4 B.M. fifth-century MS. discovered in 1864 and another sixth-century MS. discovered 
in 1876, first incomplete and second complete, both more elaborate than Greek. W. 
Cureton, Ancient Syriac Documents Relative to the Earliest Establishment of Christianity in 
Edessa and the Neighbouring Countries from the Year after Our Lord’s Ascension to the Beginning 
of the Fourth Century (London, 1863; posth. ed. W. Wright); G. Phillips, Doctrine of Addai 
the Apostle (London, 1876); L. J. Tixeront, Les origines de I’eglise d’Edesse et la legende d’Abgar 
(Paris, 1888); J. Quasten, Patrology , 2 vols. (Utrecht and Brussels, 1951-53), I, 140-3, 
with a comprehensive bibliography (p. 143). 

5 Leroubna d’Ldesse, Hist, d’Abgar, in Coll, des historiens . . . d’Armenie , ed. V. Langlois 
(Paris, 1880), I, 3 t 3fE.; cf. Fortescue Lesser Eastern Churches, p. 29, n. 1. Assemani, Bibl. 
Oriental is, I, 554-6. 

* The Mt Sinai microfilming expedition of 1950 has revealed the existence of numerous 

H E C—I 


elaborate but quite communicative text of the copies of the two epistles 
as they appear in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, a copy of a letter 
written by Abgar the Toparch to Jesus and sent to him to Jerusalem by 
the Courier ‘Ananias’: 

Abgar Uchama, the Toparch, to Jesus the Good Saviour who has 
appeared in the district of Jerusalem, greeting. I have heard concerning 
you and your cures, how they are accomplished by you without drugs and 
herbs. For, as the story goes, you make the blind recover their sight, the 
lame walk, and you cleanse lepers, and cast out unclean spirits and demons, 
and you cure those who are tortured by long disease and you raise dead 
men. And when I heard all these things concerning you I decided that it is 
one of the two, either that you are God, and came down from heaven to do 
these things, or are a son of God for doing these things. For this reason I 
write to beg you to hasten to me and to heal the suffering which I have. 
Moreover I heard that the Jews are mocking you, and wish to ill-treat you. 
Now I have a city very small and venerable which is enough for both. 

Secondly, the reply from Jesus to Agbar, the Toparch, by the Courier 

Blessed art thou who didst believe in me not having seen me, for it is 
written concerning me that those who have seen me will not believe in me, 
and that those who have not seen me will believe and live. Now concerning 
what you wrote to me, to come to you, I must first complete here all for 
which I was sent, and after thus completing it be taken up to him who 
sent me, and when I have been taken up, I will send to you one of my 
disciples to heal your suffering, and give life to you and those with you. 1 

While in Jerusalem, Hannan, according to the Doctrine of Addai , painted a 
portrait of Jesus with supernatural qualities to which the king gave a place 
of honour in his palace. This is said to have been seized by the Muslims when 
they conquered Edessa, and they later ceded it to the Byzantine emperor in 
return for a heavy ransom and the liberation of Muslim captives. 2 There the 
portrait remained until it was taken to the West, possibly after the fourth 
Crusade, and since then it was lost. 

Arabic MSS containing particulars of the Abgar legend and the two epistles in question 
sometimes incorporated in mediaeval Arabic liturgies of the monks of St Catherine’s 
Monastery. The story figures in the Arabic MSS. nos. 232, 445, 448, 485, 514 and 540 
which I have microfilmed for the Library of Congress. See Atiya, The Arabic AISS. of Alt 
Sinai (Baltimore, 1955), pp. 7, 13-14, 17, 19, 21-2. 

1 Locb edn., pp. 89-90. 

2 A Christian Arab writer, Abu Nasr Yahya b. Jarir of Takrit, states in his work that 
he had seen that portrait in St Sophia in 1058 a.d. (450 a.h.); cf. Graf, Christliche Arabische 
Lit., II, 259-60. 


After the Lord’s Passion and Ascension, His promise was fulfilled by the 
Apostles, who sent Addai, one of the seventy-two elect, on a missionary 
assignment to Edessa. There he resided with one of its Jewish inhabitants 
called Tobias son of Tobias, before healing King Agbar from his affliction. 
Subsequently he baptized the king and all his subjects, including a jeweller 
by the name of Aggai and a certain Palut. On his deathbed, Addai ordained 
Aggai as his successor. But the reversion of the new King Ma f nu to pagan¬ 
ism brought martyrdom to the second bishop, whose seat was left vacant 
until Palut was ordained bishop of Edessa by Serapion, bishop of Antioch. 
To complete the cycle of Apostolic succession, the Nestorians explain that 
Serapion was in turn ordained by Zephyrinus of Rome, who had received 
his episcopate from the hands of St Peter himself. 

This historicity of the legend is questionable by reason of numerous 
anachronisms. Serapion of Antioch is known to have reigned from 190 to 
about 211. Thus he could not have been consecrated by Pope Zephyrinus, 
who occupied the Roman see from 202 to 218. Again, the assertion that 
Zephyrinus had any direct relation with St Peter is a clear myth. From textual 
and internal criticism, Leclercq 1 arrives at the conclusion that the language 
of those epistles is derived not from the Gospels, but from Tatian’s Diates- 
saron , compiled in the second half of the second century. They could not, 
therefore, have been written before the third century, though it is possible 
that they were based on earlier tradition. The modern Nestorians have never 
doubted their authenticity and continue to demonstrate their reverence to 
them by citing them on some occasions in the Syriac liturgy. Others in remote 
territories also defended their veracity, and Cureton states that until the last 
century, the letter supposedly by Jesus was hung in homes in England as a 
charm against illness. 

The third of these legends is that of the apocryphal Acts of St Thowas the 
Apostle which will be discussed later in relation to the Church of Mar Thoma 
in southern India. It is sufficient here to register the importance of the tradi¬ 
tion prevailing among the Nestorians that after the Apostle’s martyrdom, 
his bones were transferred to Mesopotamia, where they were laid to rest on 
Assyrian soil. 

Whatever the historicity of those legends may be, the moral is that the 
roots of Assyrian Christianity are deep in antiquity. Though it may be hard 
to accept the hypothesis of Abgar V’s conversion around the middle of the 
first century a.d., Abgar VIII (176-213) is known to have been a Christian 
from the testimony of Sextus Julius Africanus, who visited his court. 2 The 
Roman conquest of Edessa in the year 216 brought the short reign of his 
successor, Abgar IX, to an end and opened up new channels for free com- 

1 ‘La Legende d’Abger’, in Diet. d'Arcb. Cbret. et de Diturgie. 

2 Burkitt, p. 26 et seq.; Fortescue, p. 32. 


munication with the chief base of Christianity in Jerusalem. The Assyrians 
were, moreover, Aramaic-speaking Semites, and barriers of race and language 
were virtually non-existent between them and their Jewish Christian brethren 
in the Holy City. Meanwhile, their familiarity with such Eastern religions as 
Zoroastrianism, which merged into Mithraism in the first century b.c., 
brought them numerous concepts which stood parallel to some of the basic 
ideas and tenets in the genesis of Christian thought. Mithras’ god, who van¬ 
quished evil and ascended to heaven as well as the Babylonian worship of 
Marduk, who was unjustly killed and rose again triumphantly, are parallels 
to the Passion and the rise of Jesus from the dead. Again, the idea of super¬ 
natural birth was not unknown to Mesopotamian cults. Baptism and purifica¬ 
tion were practised by the priests of Mithras, who also consecrated bread, 
water and wine for the faithful. The high moral code of Mithraism compared 
favourably with Jesus’ teachings. So striking was the similarity in the sacra¬ 
ments of both religions that a great church father like Tertullion found it 
necessary to explain Mithraism as a diabolical parody of the real faith intended 
to mislead the human race into error. 1 If we bear in mind the social standards 
governing the nations under the yoke of Rome as against the enfranchising 
nature of Christian teachings, which brought a message of hope and the 
fatherhood of God to downtrodden men, we can well perceive the relative 
ease with which the new faith found its way to the hearts of the Edessene 

Historic Origins 

The historic origins of the East Syrian or Assyrian, and later the Nestorian, 2 
church are as enthralling as its legends. These abound in patristic literary 
monuments which have left their mark on the march of time. Between 
Tatian and Rabbula, there are decades that shine with the early bishops and 
saints of Edessa. From the Diatessaron to the Peshitta , we see how the Syriac 
Scripture was formulated for all generations. In the schools of Nisibis and 
Edessa, there are bulwarks of faith and a spiritual home for the pioneers who 

1 L. Patterson, Mithraism and Christianity (1912); A. d’Ales, ‘Mithraisme et christianisme’ 
in Revue pratique d’apologetique , III, 462-9, 519-28; H. Le Clercq, Manuel d’archeologie 
chretienne (Paris, 1907), pp. 126-8; F. Cumont, Textes et monuments figures relatifs aux 
mysteres de Mithra , 2 vols. (Brussels, 1896-9); Emhardt and Lamsa, pp. 38-9. 

2 The ‘Church of the East’ is actually the official title of the church, otherwise the 
Nestorian or Nasturiya of the mediaeval Arabic sources (see above p. 239 n. 1). The ex¬ 
amples quoted by Badger, Nestorians and their Rituals, I, 178, on the use of the word by the 
Nestorians in 1609 coupled by the much older use of the term by Arab writers. See also 
Adeney, p. 484 n. 1. 


spread Christianity in Osrhoene and in Persia. The persecutions and triumphs 
of the Syrian fathers in those remote parts of Asia took place at a time when 
the West was seriously involved in the decisive movement of the oecumenical 
councils. But it is hard to make any precise appraisal of the real interest or 
even awareness of the East in that movement before the Council of Ephesus 
in 431. Indeed, it was at Ephesus that one first sees the dividing line between 
East and West, Syriac and Greek, Semitic and Byzantine, Diophysite and 
Monophysite, Nestorian and Orthodox. Until then the East and West Syrians 
never severed relations and never wavered in their communion and mutual 

Of the truly memorable names that stand out of those dim beginnings, we 
hear of Bardaisan and Tatian in the ante-Nicene period. Of noble descent, 
Bardaisan 1 was born in 154 and educated with King Abgar VIII (176-213). 
He became a celebrated writer and a true representative of Syriac philosophy. 
After his conversion to Christianity, he was ordained deacon by Hystasp, 
bishop of Edessa, in 179 a.d.; but when he turned to metaphysical and astro¬ 
logical polemics, he was anathematized by Bishop Aqai as a heretic and was 
forced to flee to the neighbouring Armenia around 216-the year of the 
Roman conquest of Edessa. It is believed by some writers that he became a 
dualist gnostic and a follower of Valentinus. 2 Eusebius asserts that he later 
turned against the Valentinians, though ‘he did not completely clean off the 
filth of his ancient heresy.’ 3 Bardaisan developed an Oriental doctrine of 
astrological 4 fatalism. He held that Christ’s body was a mere phantom and 
repudiated the idea of the resurrection. A man of great literary ability, he 
wrote numerous important works including a powerful Dialogue with Antonins 
Concerning Date , and he is to be regarded as the father of Syriac hymnology. 
His hymns were, however, pervaded with his doctrines; but their beauty 
gained for him many followers for centuries to come. The apocryphal Acts of 
St Thomas 5 the Apostle are ascribed to circles under his influence. Bardaisan, 
sometimes described as ‘the last of the Gnostics’, left behind him a school 
which revived Syriac literature and philosophy at his death in 222. 

Another contemporary of Bardaisan was Tatian, who, like him, made a 
monumental contribution to Syriac religious literature and also like him was 
accused of heresy. A native of Assyria of pagan birth, Tatian went to Rome 
after 150 a.d. where he was converted to Christianity before 165. He studied 

1 The fullest biography of Bardaisan is given by the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch, 
Michael the Syrian (1166-99), m Us famous Syriac Chronicle. Sec Burkitt on ‘Bardaisan 
and his Disciples’ in Early Eastern Christianity , pp. 153-92. 

2 For example, Fortescue, p. 34. 

3 Hist. Eccles., IV, xxx. 

4 See ‘Bardesanes’ in F. L. Cross, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 
1957 )- 

5 Acta Tbomae , composed in the third century and containing some of the most beautiful 
hymns of the early Christians, such as the ‘Hymn of the Soul’. 


under Justin Martyr and appears to have succeeded him as a great teacher and 
Christian apologist. Then he fell under the spell of Valentinus and Gnostic 
philosophy, which made him unpopular in Rome. He laid the foundations of 
a new Gnostic sect known as ‘Encratites,’ or Abstainers, who dismissed 
marriage, meat and wine as sinful. His sect became conspicuous for the use 
of water instead of wine in the Eucharist. On account of growing suspicions 
towards him among the Roman ecclesiastical authorities, he was forced to 
retire to Edessa, where he was welcomed as a great Syriac mind by his native 
countrymen. He wrote in Greek his Oration to the Greeks , in which he combined 
the defence of Christian purity with a vehement deprecation of Greek civiliza¬ 
tion, which he regarded as incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. His 
real fame, however, rested on his contribution to Syriac religious literature, 
notably in the Diatessaron , a word which meant ‘harmony’. Tatian then com¬ 
posed a life of Jesus, which he collated from the four Gospels, thus harmoniz¬ 
ing, so to speak, a selection to form a continuous story. Until that time the 
Syrians had no full texts of the New Testament in Syriac, and so the Diates¬ 
saron was generally adopted in their churches as their canonical Scripture. 
Bishop Palut, who perceived this irregularity, at once reacted with the intro¬ 
duction of a new Syriac version of the Four Gospels separately ( Evangelion 
da-Mepharreshe ), which did not win general approval, and people continued 
the use of the Diatessaron. The task of substituting the final Syriac New 
Testament for both the old version of the separate Gospels and the Diatessaron 
was reserved to Bishop Rabbula in the early years of the fifth century. He 
made his final revision thereof in what is known as the Peshitta (a word 
literally meaning ‘simple’ or ‘plain’ version of the Syriac Vulgate). This com¬ 
prised the current text of the Gospels according to the Antiochene tradition ? 
together with the First Epistle of St Peter, the First Epistle of St John and 
the Epistle of St James as well as the Acts and Pauline Epistles, but excluding 
the four lesser Catholic epistles and the Book of Revelation. 1 

Bishop Rabbula of Edessa (421-35) was thus one of the most vigorous 
Syrian teachers in the defence of orthodoxy. Although the substitution of the 
Peshitta for the Diatessaron must be regarded as his enduring contribution to 
Syrian and Assyrian Christianity, Rabbula’s role in the field of the reorganiza¬ 
tion of the Church as a whole was prominent in his day. As a staunch 
orthodox, his opposition to Nestorian irregularities and innovations remained 
unabated throughout his life. The canons which bear his name form an 
elaborate document intended to control the rules of matrimony and the order 
of society. They provide us with a true contemporary picture of the Meso¬ 
potamian church and society in the early decades of the fifth century. Burkitt 
gives a full analysis of those canons together with supporting excerpts from 

1 The Epistles omitted arc 2 Pet., 2 and 3 John, and Jude. Burkitt, pp. 39-78; W. 
Wright, Short History of Syriac Literature (London, 1894), pp. 3-13, 47-9. 


their original text. 1 On the whole, although a Syriac-speaking church leader, 
Rabbula voiced the teachings of Western orthodoxy and of Greek religious 
philosophy. It was in his lifetime that the seeds of an imminent split between 
the East and West Syrians were sown, but the open rupture came only in 
the reign of Ibas, his unorthodox successor. 

Before entering into the details of the Nestorian controversy, however, a 
survey of the major events in the period separating Tatian from Rabbula 
appears to be inevitable for an understanding of the development of Eastern 
Christianity. In addition to Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and Antioch 
as the traditional centres of Christian learning and orthodox religious think¬ 
ing, we must remember that in the East, Edessa was also making strides as 
the rising centre of Syriac theology and letters. When Nisibis fell to the 
Persians in 363 a.d., its leading minds moved to Edessa. Foremost among 
these was St Ephrasm the Syrian (ca. 306-73), often surnamed the Great for 
his sanctity, scholarship, unwavering orthodoxy and immense contribution 
to Syriac religious literature. 2 Born in Nisibis of parents whose Christianity 
is sometimes contested, he became a monk and is said to have been at Nicx 
with his spiritual father, James, bishop of that town. He became an inveterate 
enemy of Arianism, which he combated at Edessa and elsewhere. Some 
sources speak of his doubtful visits to the Desert Fathers in Egypt as well as 
to St Basil the Great of Caesarea in Cappadocia. His works in Syriac are 
monuments of Biblical erudition. Exegesis and asceticism as well as hymn- 
ology were the chief fields in which he worked. In fact, it may be argued that 
he was the true father of Syriac literature. Some of his works were translated 
into Greek, Armenian and even Arabic 3 at early dates. 

Edessa was thus gradually growing into a stronghold of Syriac tradition 
while Antioch was increasingly hellenized, although both continued to abide 
by the resolutions of Nicaea until the opening decades of the fifth century. In 
fact, there were no real signs of open cleavage between the two great centres 
of eastern Christianity on matters of doctrine until the year 431 at the first 
Council of Ephesus. The appearance of Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, 
on the scene of events, remote as that may seem from Edessa, proved to be 
the parting of the ways between the East and West Syrians. Nestorius was 
originally a monk of Antioch and a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia. He 
became famous for his ability in preaching and for his melodious voice in recit¬ 
ing the holy liturgy. Emperor Theodosius IPs choice finally fell on him for 
the see of Constantinople. The Antiochian took to his new ditues with zeal 

1 Burkitt, pp. I43-5 2 - The full title of the Canons of Rabbula is ‘Commands and 
Admonitions to Priests and to Sons of the Covenant Living in the Country*. 

2 Burkitt, p. 55 et seq.; Fortcscuc, p. 35. 

3 St Ephraem was very popular with the Arabic-speaking monks at the Monastery of 
St Catherine in Mt Sinai. The Expedition of 1950 microfilmed some forty Arabic MSS. 
with citations from him. See list in Atiya, Arabic MSS. of Mt Sinai , p. 86. 


and started purging the capital of heresies and heretics, unaware of what lay 
in store for him as the future arch-heretic of his own times. The problems of 
Christology which had already troubled the fifth-century world broke out 
again in a somewhat casual manner when a priest of Constantinople by the 
name of Anastasius, whom Nestorius had brought with him from Antioch, 
repudiated in one of his sermons the description of the Virgin Mary as 
Theotokos , that is, mother of God. The Greeks became disturbed and ques¬ 
tioned his assumption, but Nestorius defended his man. In his defence, he 
began to elaborate on the subject of the relations of Jesus, the man born of 
Mary, and the word of God dwelling in him. This led him into the completely 
unorthodox assertion of the two persons: Jesus the perfect man without sin 
who is son of Mary in the flesh, on the one hand, and the divine word of God 
or the Logos settled within him, on the other. Thus the thesis of the two 
separate, not composite, natures of Jesus arose, perhaps unwittingly, but 
with vehemence. The fortress of orthodoxy at the time was Alexandria, and 
at its head was Cyril, a patriarch of greater theological knowledge, ability 
and resourcefulness than probably any cleric in his day. Synods both in 
Alexandria and in Rome decided against the new heresy in 430 and deposed 
Nestorius. The emperor sought to resolve the dilemma by summoning an 
oecumenical council at Ephesus 1 in the following year. A total of 198 bishops 
were convened there under the presidency of Cyril, with strong representa¬ 
tions from Alexandria, Rome, Jerusalem, Thessalonica and Ephesus. Nestor¬ 
ius himself came with sixteen bishops and an armed escort under command 
of an imperial commissioner by the name of Candidian. John of Antioch and 
his suffragan bishops were however delayed en route ; and so he dispatched a 
special envoy with a message to Cyril to hold the Council without waiting 
for his delegation. John’s personal sympathy for Nestorius was known to 
Cyril, who accordingly decided to hurry the council business before his 
arrival to save him from embarrassment with a friend. Nestorius refused to 
appear before the council and was condemned, excommunicated and deposed. 
In the meantime, he met with forty-three rival bishops in a synod at his own 
house and issued a similar verdict against Cyril and the rest of the bishops. 
John and his thirty bishops later reached Ephesus to face these decisions, 
which no doubt annoyed them, though John was eventually persuaded to 
side with Cyril’s viewpoint. Failing to establish peace between the rival part¬ 
ies, Theodosius II and his sister Pulcheria were led to accept the Council ver¬ 
dict. Cyril was allowed to return to Alexandria, Nestorius was exiled to the 
Libyan oases, and a new bishop of Constantinople by the name of Maximian 

1 Hcfele (standard Fr. trans.), II, 1, 219-356; Landon (summary account), I, 254-65. 
M. Jugie, Nestorius et la controversie nestorienne (Paris, 1912), passim.; L. Duchesne, Early 
History of Church , Vol. Ill, pp. 218 ct seq.; Fortcscuc, p. 54 ct scq.; Vine, Nestorian Churches , 
p. 28 et scq.; Wigram, Assyrian Church , p. 135. 


(431-4) was appointed in his place. Nestorius suffered a great deal in his exile. 
He was seized by the wild Blemmyes from the south, then removed to Pano- 
polis, where the imperial governor of the area allowed him to stay. He tried 
to defend his name by a work which he called The Bazaar of Heracleidesf thus 
using a nom-de-plume to save the book from destruction, since anything bear¬ 
ing his own name would automatically have been burnt by the authorities. 
He died on the eve of Chalcedon and was interred in a place unknown. 1 2 His 
chief legacy to posterity was not limited to Nestorian Christology. It extended 
to the establishment of the Nestorian church, which espoused his teachings 
though he himself had no hand in founding it. 

Bishop Rabbula of Edessa, who upheld the cause of orthodoxy in that 
church, died in 43 5 and was succeeded by Ibas (435-5 7), whose sympathy for 
Nestorius can be traced to his translation into Syriac of the works of Theodore 
of Mopsuestia, who had himself been the teacher of Nestorius and the chief 
source of his theological doctrine. Ibas fell under Theodore’s spell, and though 
he never professed open Nestorianism, he remained technically in the Nestor¬ 
ian camp against the other Syrian Monophysites. This explains why the 
second Council of Ephesus 3 of 449, under Egyptian influence and the presi¬ 
dency of Dioscorus, patriarch of Alexandria deposed him, while Chalcedon 4 
in 451 reversed the decision by reinstating him and excommunicating Dio¬ 
scorus. It is doubtful whether these judgments affected the position of Ibas 
at home, where the Syrians were evenly divided between the so-called 
Nestorian and Monophysite parties. However, after Ibas’s death in 457, the 
Monophysites had the upper hand in Edessa under Nonnus, his successor. 
The leader of the other faction, Bar Sauma, who had previously been ex¬ 
communicated by the so-called ‘Robber Council’, fled to Nisibis in Persia 
beyond the boundaries of the Roman empire. That date proved, therefore, 
to be a landmark in defining the frontier separating the Syrian Monophysites 
from the Syrian Nestorians. While Monophysites looked to Antioch within 
the empire, the Nestorians segregated themselves in Kurdistan and upper 
Mesopotamia within the orbit of Persian domination. Finally, Nestorian 

1 Surviving Syriac text ed. P. Bedjan (Paris, 1910); French tr. F. Nau (Paris, 1910); 
English tr. G. R. Driver and L. Hodgson (Oxford, 1925). 

2 Possibly Panopolis (modern Ikhmlm) in Upper Egypt. 

3 The chief object of this council was to consider the allegations against Eutyches, a 
Greek monk who taught that the two natures were separate before the Incarnation, then 
became united into one indivisible and divine nature afterwards. He was acquitted and 
reinstated in a boisterous meeting hurried before the arrival of the Latins. Pope Leo 
described that council as nothing better than a gathering of robbers {latrocinium ), hence 
it became famous as the ‘Robber Council’, Hefclc, I, 2, 554-621; Landon, I, 265-8; Vine, 
p. 50; Duchesne, III, 279 et seq. 

4 Hefele, II, 2, 649-880; Landon, I, 134-48; R. V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon - 
A Historical and Doctrinal Survey (London, 1953); Das Kon^il von Chalcedon , ed. A. Grill- 
meier and H. Bacht, 3 vols. (Wurzburg, 1951-4). 


scholarship became extinct at Edessa when Emperor Zeno (474-91) ordered 
the closing of the Edessene School and the expulsion of all Nestorians from 
his realm. The Church later confirmed his decision at the fifth (Ecumenical 
Council of Constantinople (5 53), which condemned both the person and the 
writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the original fountainhead of Nestorian 
teachings. Thus Nestorianism became illegal in the empire, and Edessa 
suffered a deadly blow from which it never recovered with the disappearance 
of Nestorian scholars and technicians from the area. 

Nestorians in Persia 

At this point the origins become clearer, and the frontiers between the 
Monophysite or Jacobite and the Nestorian or East Syrian Churches begin 
to narrow. It is true that in those early days there were Monophysites in 
Persia who mingled freely with the expelled Nestorians. The metropolitans 
of Seleucia-Ctesiphon were Jacobites who looked for leadership to Antioch 
within the Roman territory. Their allegiance to a hellenized patriarchate 
outside Persia was disastrous for their Church and offered the incoming 
Nestorians a chance for expansion at their expense. One of their bishops, 
Babowi by name, was seized in treasonable correspondence with Zeno, to 
whom he complained of being under the yoke of an impious sovereign, 
meaning the Sassanid king, Firooz. He paid for his folly with his life. Firooz 
crucified him, and under the influence of Bar Sauma, bishop of Nisibis, the 
Monophysite priests of Persia were massacred. In 484 at the Synod of Beth 
Lapat or Laphat (the Persian Jundishapur ), the Nestorian prelates under Bar 
Sauma’s leadership blessed the memory of Theodore of Mopsuestia and con¬ 
demned all other doctrines, Monophysite and orthodox, of all churches under 
Roman rule. It is interesting to note that the same synod legalized marriage of 
priests and bishops. Bar Sauma himself inaugurated this policy by marrying 
a nun. Fie missed becoming metropolitan of Persia with the death of his 
friend King Firooz and the accession of a more moderate king, Balash 
(484-8), who overlooked the intriguing Bar Sauma and appointed Acacius 
(485-96) in his stead. The new prelate was not violently Nestorian in his 
approach, and he is said to have once declared, while on a visit to Constanti¬ 
nople, that he only participated in the banning of Monophysitism without 
attacking orthodoxy and that he was planning to excommunicate Bar 
Sauma. The monks of Persia saved him from the ordeal by assassinating the 
bishop of Nisibis in 493, whom Acacius outlived by only three years. 

Bar Sauma’s tempestuous life left him little time for literary activities, and 
his remains are few. Only fragments of the Acts of the Council of Beth 


Lephat of 484 are known to exist, together with a number of funeral orations, 
hymns and a liturgy. Acacius too had a limited output. He composed homilies 
on faith and fasting, and wrote treatises against the Monophysites. For King 
Kavadh, he translated into the Persian language a book on the faith by Oseus, 
or Eliseus, bishop of Nisibis. Assemani places it among orthodox letters, 
but Chabot doubts its purity of doctrine. The patriarch was indubitably 
Nestorian in profession. In his discipline and canons, he authorized episcopal 
matrimony and blessed the marriage of priests and deacons beyond a shadow 
of doubt, even after ordination. Fie allowed monks to rescind freely in order 
to raise families. 1 

Confusion continued in the Nestorian Church in the reigns of the suc¬ 
cessors of Acacius for nearly fifty years. The period begins with an almost 
illiterate 2 patriarch, Babai II (497-502) who was followed by others among 
whom we find rival prelates excommunicating each other. Nevertheless, it 
would be a mistake to describe the period as an age of total darkness. In this 
formative period of transition, the Church reached maturity under the 
hegemony of the Persian kings and declared its complete independence of 
the West when Babowi assumed the title ‘Patriarch of the East’ in 498, thus 
raising the stature of his see to equality with and independence of Antioch, 
Alexandria or Rome. Meanwhile, the school of Nisibis assumed the place of 
the ancient school of Edessa and made a considerable advance under the able 
headship of Nerses, whom the Nestorians called the ‘Harp of the Holy 
Ghost’ and the ‘admirable doctor’ while the Monophysites referred to him as 
Nerses the Leper. 3 The chronicler f Abd-Tshu f ascribes to him 360 metrical 
poems of seven to twelve syllables each. They embody a fine historical 
commentary on the Books of the Ecclesiastes and the Prophets from the 
Old Testament. Flis hymns and homilies are known. He attacked Bar 
Sauma in his work Corruption of Customs. Some of his writings found their 
way not only into the Nestorian but also into the Catholic liturgies. 4 That 
school became the great Nestorian educational centre and the nursery of 
noted patriarchs and prelates of future generations. 

The Nisibene school was a kind of cambium where students, thoueh not 
always monks, led a quasi-monastic life. Its rule insisted on celibacy and 
enforced regularity, residence and work. Theology, philosophy and canon 
law were taught by able church doctors. Labourt notes that here the Nes¬ 
torian metropolis saw the birth of the earliest theological university on 
record, a phenomenon which aroused Justinian’s admiration and surprise. 5 
Since the Nestorian graduates of Nisibis were the teachers of the Arabs, who 

1 J. B. Chabot, IJttcrature Syriaque (Paris, 1934), pp. 51-2. 

2 Fortcscue, p. 82. 

3 Labourt, pp. 279-310; Wigram, pp. 238-40; Vine, p. 54; Fortcscuc, p. 82. 

4 Chabot, pp. 50-51. 5 Labourt, p. 301. 


transmitted the heritage of Greece to the West in the later Middle Ages, it is 
not difficult to appraise the debt of the great schools of Europe to Nisibis. 1 
To this school, the Nestorian Church owed its real reformers, of whom Mar- 
Aba, patriarch of the East from 525 to 533, was a prominent figure. Travel¬ 
ling widely in his see, he strengthened the doctrine of his church and ex¬ 
terminated abuses by holding synods everywhere, finally earning the crown 
of martyrdom in Shapur II’s persecution of the Christians. 2 

The Chronicler e Abd-Tshu" ascribes to him the only revised Nestorian 
Syriac Bible, complete from the Edessene and Alexandrian Greek texts as 
against the usual Syriac Simple Version or Peshitta. Among other works he 
also wrote a commentary on Genesis, Psalms, the Proverbs and the Pauline 
Epistles, in addition to a series of homilies and the Syriac version of the 
Liturgy of Theodore of Mopsuestia, still in use in the Catholic Chaldasan 
branch of the Nestorian Church. 3 By the end of the sixth century Nestorian 
doctrine became permanently established in its definitive form for all 
generations. Its greatest mouthpiece was Mar Babai, surnamed the Great to 
distinguish him from his namesake, Patriarch Babai II. He was abbot of the 
monastery of Mount Izala (569-628) and was a theologian of considerable 
merit. His Book of Union appears to have settled the final version of Nes¬ 
torian beliefs, and his words incorporated in the Nestorian divine office for 
early morning from Advent to Epiphany may be quoted here as a clear and 
concise expression to the East Syrian Christology: ‘One is Christ the Son of 
God, worshipped by all in two natures. In his godhead begotten of the 
Father without beginning before all time: in his manhood born of Mary, in 
the fulness of time, in a united body. Neither his godhead was of the nature 
of the mother, nor his manhood of the nature of the Father. The natures are 
preserved in their qnume , 4 in one person of one sonship.’ 5 Until the present 
day, the Nestorians refrain from using the term Yaldath Alaha , the Syriac 
equivalent of the Greek Theotokos , and instead refer to the Virgin as Yaldath 
Mlshikah - bearer of Christ. 6 Mar Babai’s influence was very great on the 
whole church as he administered its offices during a patriarchal interregnum 
after the stormy reign of Sabr-Ishu r (590-604). It was an age of mixed feelings 
and policies toward Christians. Finally, when a successor was anointed patri¬ 
arch in the person of Yeshuyab II (628-43), the Church left its troubles 
behind, and the new prelate embarked for the first time in history on a mis¬ 
sionary programme for China, to be dealt with later in these pages. 

1 Wigram, p. 167. 2 Labourt, pp. 163 et seq. 

3 Text pub. P. Bcdjan (Paris, 1895); cf. Chabot, pp. 5 3—4* 

4 Syriac with Arabic equivalent Aqniim , meaning nature, description of person. The 
original formula is ‘two qyane, two qnume , one parsufd\ that is, ‘two natures, two persons, 
one presence’. The word parsufd is a corruption of the Greek. 

6 H. J. Sutcliffe, ‘The Church of the East’, in Orthodoxy , VI (1954), 259-60. 

6 Wigram, pp. 287-9. On the Creed of the Assyrian Church, see the same, pp. 290-3. 


It is not easy to define precisely the extent of the Nestorian Church in 
Persia under Sassanid rule, nor is it possible to provide an accurate descrip¬ 
tion of its territorial organization or enumerate its various ecclesiastical 
provinces and sees. Assemani 1 and Le Quien 2 attempted this difficult task in 
their antiquated but scholarly works, and a modern historian 3 of the Nes¬ 
torian Church summed up the consensus of their views. The place names re¬ 
ferred to by these authors are not clear, nor is the table of contents submitted 
by them final. Nevertheless, the material may be quoted here as a general 
guide to the constituencies of an expanding hierarchy. It will be seen, how¬ 
ever, that this is limited mainly to the western part of the Persian empire, 
including upper and lower Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates. 
The eastern part, which is even more formidable in its dimensions, is treated 
lightly and out of proportion, we must assume, through lack of sources. 

hirst, we have the patriarchal see, located at the ancient capital Seleucia- 
Ctesiphon. Then the province of Susiana, consisting of four bishoprics at 
Jundishapur, Susa, Ahwaz and Suster, all owing direct allegiance to the 
patriarch. Other provinces under the jurisdiction of a metropolitan with 
bishoprics included the following sees: (i) Patriarchalis, with a metropolitan 
at Kashkar and one bishop at Hira; (2) Nisibis, with a metropolitan at Nisibis 
and a bishop at Bakerda; (3) Teredon, with a metropolitan at Basrah, a 
bishop probably at Destesana, and a church if not a bishopric at Nahr-al- 
Marah; (4) Adiabene (modern Haydab situated between the Tigris and the 
Zab rivers), with a metropolitan at Erbil and bishops at Honita and Maalta; 
(5) Garamasa, with a metropolitan at Karkha and bishops at Sciaarchadate 
and Dakuka; (6) Khurasan, with a metropolitan at Merv or Marw; (7) Atro- 
patene, with a metropolitan at Taurisium; (8) Rawardshir, Rayy and Herat, 
originally bishoprics, later metropolitan centres. Finally there seems to have 
been a number of other bishoprics not yet assigned to metropolitans. These 
were Maiperkat, Nineveh, Singara, Drangerda, Isfahan, Nishapur and Seges- 
tan south of Herat. 4 

This is roughly the general picture of the Church at the time of the collapse 
of the Sassanid empire and the rise of the Muslim caliphate. Later in these 
pages, a similar account of the Nestorian dioceses under Arab rule will be 
made for purposes of comparison. Meanwhile, it will be seen that the 
Church continued to gather such strength as to lead to one of the most 
amazing missionary movements in the Far East. At one moment the whole of 
Asia beyond the Euphrates and Kurdistan became the parish of the Nestorian 
patriarch. This movement, already begun before the disappearance of 

1 Joseph Simonius Assemanus (Yusuf Sam'an al-Sam r ani), bibliotheca Orientals, 3 vols. 
in 4 (Rome, 1719). 

2 M. Le Quien, Oriens Christianus in Quatnor Patriarchatus Digestus , 3 vols. (Paris 1740) 

3 Vine, pp. 56-9. 

4 Ibid., p .57. 


Persian rule, was continued with much vigour in Islamic times at least until 
the Tartar avalanche swept off almost all vestiges of material and spiritual 
civilization from those parts of Asia in the later Middle Ages. This story will 
be treated separately in some detail but cannot be explained without a brief 
survey of the source of strength of the Church as a whole. The backbone of 
Nestorian expansion lay with its monastic rule, which furnished the church 
with a great army of dedicated men ready to penetrate unknown regions and 
expose themselves to every peril to spread the faith in the far East. 


With the stabilization of Nestorian doctrine and a firm hierarchical organiza¬ 
tion in Persia, the church began to look around for opportunities for ex¬ 
pansion. This was made possible by both the external and the internal cir¬ 
cumstances and conditions which accompanied the development of the 
Nestorian church and people. In the first place, the settlement of the Nes- 
torians in Persia beyond the closed frontier of the Roman empire saved them 
from the encroachments of both Jacobite and Orthodox elements which 
flowed from Antioch and Constantinople. Nor were they involved in the 
doctrinal controversies which arose between the Monophysites of the 
ancient patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch in one camp, and the Mel- 
kites who adhered to the Chalcedonian decisions and remained in the fol¬ 
lowing of Constantinople and Rome. Even during local persecutions, they 
lived in relative peace and were allowed a normal growth without religious 
interference from outside. In fact, the tendency to exaggerate the gravity of 
religious persecutions in the East has to be re-considered in the general 
framework of the eastern state, where the whims of a despot or dictator 
resulted in the persecution of Christian and non-Christian alike without 
discrimination. On the other hand, the remaining frontiers of Persia, mainly 
looking eastward, lay open before the Nestorians with immense horizons of 
hope for evangelization and expansion. Seleucia-Ctesiphon was a natural 
meeting place of mercantile caravans from Arabia, Central Asia, India and 
China. It was here that the Nestorians became acquainted with people from 
all the countries of the East, and through this acquaintance began to work 
amongst these people. The bewildering success of their missions was made 
possible by a series of important internal factors. They combined with their 
enthusiasm for their faith a monastic system and a hierarchy ready for action 
and self-sacrifice. Moreover, they were extremely modern in the orientation 
of their missionary enterprise. Wherever they installed a new bishopric, a 
school with a library and a hospital with medical services were included in 
the project. The Nestorians were exceptionally noted for their technical 
ability, their learning and their medical skill. Like the modern missionary, 
they combined educational and medical services and religious work with 

2 57 


great effect amongst the nations of the East. The wide expansion of the 
Nestorian church has bewildered scholars whose literary output on the 
subject has been tremendous. 1 A new appraisal of the glorious past of that 
Church has to be made, and, in the face of the many centres of its activity, 
the emergence, progress and extinction of Nestorian Christianity in each 
area must be considered in turn. 


The Arabian peninsula, long closed to all Christians and only re-opened to 
oil technicians in our lifetime, happened to be one of the earliest fields where 
the Nestorians launched their missionary enterprise. In reality, Christianity 
was not unknown in Arabia even before the advent of Nestorianism. 2 
In 225, a bishopric was in existence at Beth Katraye, the country of the 
Qatars in south-east Arabia, opposite the islands of Bahrain. Christianity 
had found its way to the tribes of Himyar, Ghassan, Taghlib, Tanukh, 
Tayy and Quda'a long before Islam; and an Arabian queen by the name of 
‘Maria’ was a Christian who invited a Bishop Moses to come and live with 
her people. As early as 380 a.d., Hlrah and Kufah contained numbers of 
Christians. 3 Nestorian Christianity is said to have come into Arabia from 
Persia as a result of Sassanid Christian persecutions, notably in the reign of 
Shapur II (310-79), when Christian emigrants found a haven of peace among 
the Arabs in adjacent provinces from 339 onwards. 4 Authentic knowledge 
from Syriac sources of the progress of Christianity in central and south 
Arabia is in The Took of the Himjarites , 5 written in 932 but containing refer¬ 
ences of great value to earlier periods, especially the sixth century. The 

1 For bibliographical material on the subject, see above (p. 242 n. 1) in addition to 
shorter accounts to be found in the general church histories by Fortescue, Kidd, Vine, 
Wigram and others. The older works of Assemani and Le Quien are still indispensable. 

2 On the Buhaira or Bahira legend, see R. Gottheil, A. Christian Bahira Legend (New 
York, 1903), consisting of reprints from the Zeitschr. fuer Assyriologie , XIII-XVI, with 
Syriac and Arabic texts and English tr. See also Th. Wright’s old work, Early Christianity 
in Arabia (London, 1855); H. Charles, Le Christianisme des arabes nomades sur le Limes et 
dans le desert Syro-mesopotamien aux alentours de Vhegire (Paris, ipj6)\ F. Nau, Les arabes 
chretiens de Mesopotamie et de Syrie du Vll e an VIII e siecle (Paris, 1933); and Louis Cheiko’s 
Arabic work on Christian Arabic poets, Shu ara al-Nasraniya, 2 vols. in 6 pts. (Beirut, 
1890-1), which is a monumental work of compilation, although his views have to be 
accepted with caution. A more recent survey in Arabic may be found in Asad J. Rustum, 
The Church of the City of God , Great Antioch , Vol. I (Beirut, 1958), PP* 39° _ 4° 2 * 

3 Stewart, pp. 50-4; L. E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christians in Asia (Cambridge, 1933), 
p. 13, quoting the Arab geographer ibn Hauqal. 

4 Vine, p. 59. 

5 Ed. and tr. Axel Moberg (Lund, Sweden, 1924). 


main theme of the book revolves around the great massacre of the Arab 
Christians of Najran and Himyar by a Jewish Arab king, Masruq, in 523 and 
the Abyssinian expedition of 525 to save them. It ended in the defeat of 
Masruq, who drowned himself in the Red Sea. 1 It is said that there were six 
bishops in Arabia during the fifth century, of whom the bishop of Hirah 
owed ecclesiastical allegiance to the Nestorian metropolitan of Kashkar. 2 
There were also churches at Sana f a, Aden and Dhafar as well as monasteries 
and schools at ‘Marotha’ and ‘Jemana’. The reign of the Christian King 
Abraha al-Ashram 3 in the second half of the sixth century in Yemen re¬ 
vitalized Arabian Christianity. He built a cathedral at Sana r a. Arab Christians 
were usually followers of the ‘Church of the East’, though some were also 
under the influence of the Jacobite church in Syria. The current legend is 
that the Prophet Muhammad learnt his first lessons about Christianity from a 
Jacobite monk - some say a Nestorian - by the name of Sergius Bahlra. 4 
However, in the course of the seventh century, the rise of Islam in Arabia 
swept both Christianity and Judaism from the peninsula, though we hear 
from Nestorian sources of isolated cases of Christian activities, such as a 
Nestorian synod held in 676 in southern Arabia with the Patriarch Georgius 
(660-80) presiding. Stray nomads such as Banu Salih clung to Christianity 
as late as 779, when the Caliph al-Mahdi wished to impose Islam upon them, 
and 823, when al-M 5 amun persecuted them. We must assume, however, that 
by the ninth century at the latest all vestiges of Nestorian Christianity were 
stamped out of Arabia. 5 

Central Asia 

Although we hear that Christianity was first introduced among the Gilanian 
tribes south-west of the Caspian, as well as Gog and Magog, by Aggai, who 
was Addai’s disciple in 120-40 a.d., 6 we must assume that this belongs to the 
realm of legend. Again we read of bishops of Rayy, Isfahan, Segestan, Nisha- 
bour, Herat and Marw as signatories at a church council convened by the 
Catholicos in Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 424. The first instance on record which 

1 Stewart, pp. 57 et seq. 

2 Vine, p. 59. The others arc the ‘bishops at Kufa, Beth Rahman, Perath Messenes, 
Beth Katraye and Najran’. 

3 Th. Wright, pp. 92-100; Stewart, p. 68. 

4 Mas'udi uses ‘Buhaira’, diminutive of ‘Bahr’, i.e. lake, but Gottheil (op. cit., p. 189, 
n. 1) shows this merely to be the Aramaic word meaning ‘elect’. 

6 Vine, p. 125. 

6 The Syraic ‘Doctrine of the Apostles’, written in 250 a.d., makes similar reference 
to these early conversions; Mingana, ‘Early Spread of Christianity’, in John Rylands 
bulletin, IX, 303; cf. Stewart, p. 77. 


may be accepted as historical dates in the year 498, during the reign of 
Patriarch Acacius (485-96), when the tolerant Kavadh I (488-531) was 
ousted from the throne of Persia by the usurper Djamasp (496-8) and fled 
to Turkestan with Nestorians in his retinue. Among his companions were the 
bishop of Arran, four presbyters and two laymen who set to work to evange¬ 
lize the Turks with considerable success. They were reinforced by a number 
of physicians, scribes and skilled artisans who helped to raise the cultural 
standards of the people, meanwhile extending the Gospel to them. The story 
runs that the presbyters worked for seven years in the area and that the 
laymen remained until 530. It is difficult to know what happened after that 
year, although Christianity must have persisted until an unnamed king of the 
Turks wrote in 781 to Patriarch Timothy (778-820), asking him for a 
metropolitan to administer to his people, who became Christians with him. 
Thomas of Marga speaks of the selection of eighty monks by Timothy and 
the ordination of bishops who were sent to the East to preach the Gospel. 
Shabhalishu’s name is mentioned on the occasion as one of Timothy’s 
envoys, for he knew the tongues spoken by Turks, Tartars and Mongols. 
Timothy named a metropolitan of Turkestan to be stationed at Samarqand 
with two bishops at Bukhara and Tashqand. The Nestorians then pushed 
toward Lake Baikal in the north-east, converting tribes of Tartar stock such 
as the Keraits, Uighurs, Naimans and Merkites, possibly in the course of the 
tenth and eleventh centuries. About 1077 f Abdishu f , metropolitan of Marw 
in Khurasan, wrote to the catholicos to inform him of the miraculous con¬ 
version of a king of the Keraits along with 200,000 of his people to Chris¬ 
tianity. 1 Marco Polo (1265-1323) saw a church at the Kerait capital of 
Karakorum, and we begin to hear about the vast Christian kingdom of 
Prester John in Central Asia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Both king 
and priest, Prester John also had the titles of ‘Unc Khan’ or ‘Owang Khan’. 
It is suggested that ‘Owang’ is not dissimilar to ‘Joannes’, 2 and it is some¬ 
times even identified as Jenghiz Khan, 3 who was not as hostile to Christians 
as Timur Lane. In Central Asia, the nomadic nature of the inhabitants ren¬ 
dered the frontiers of countries so mobile that we encounter both Mongols 
and Turks in the same territory. This accounts for the uncertainty of Prester 
John’s frontiers, which were moved by travellers from Central Asia to 
China. The legendary nature of the story is shown by the fact that his empire 
was later identified with India and even Abyssinia. Although our knowledge 
of Nestorian Christianity in Central Asia in the later Middle Ages is meagre, 
recent archaeological discoveries in the province of Semiryechensk in 
southern Siberia, now within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, prove 

1 Episode in Bar Hebrseus quoted by L. E. Browne, pp. 101-2. 

2 Fortescue, p. 107. 

3 Article on ‘Prester John’, in Uncyclopadia Britannica (14th and other edns., 1932 etc.) 

CHINA • 261 

beyond doubt that Christians must have been numerous in Turkestan until 
the fourteenth century. Christian cemeteries were found in the neighbour¬ 
hood of the villages of Great Tokmak and Pishpek, near Lake Issiq Kol. 
Many of the graves had steke with dated Syriac inscriptions ranging from 
1249 to 1345. To quote a few examples, a stela of 1255 indicated the tomb of 
Chorepiscopos (that is, Bishop) Ama; and another of 1272 denoted that of 
Zuma, who combined at one and the same time the titles of priest, general 
and famous amir, the son of General Gawardis. An inscription of 1307 re¬ 
veals the grave of Julia, wife of the Chorepiscopos Johanan, thus demon¬ 
strating the laxity in observance of clerical celibacy in those remote regions. 
Other stelae mention the priest Sabrishu" in 1315, Shlila, a celebrated com¬ 
mentator and religious teacher in 1326, and Pesoha, an eloquent preacher in 
1 338. 1 Other inscriptions name a woman, ‘Terim the Chinese’, a priest 
‘Banus the Uigurian’, several laymen called ‘Kiamata of Kashghar’, ‘Tatta 
the Mongol’, and ‘Shah Malik son of George of Tus’. This provides a clear 
demonstration of the great ethnic mixture of Christians, to whom the faith 
lifted all barriers between Syrian, Turk and Mongol in Central Asia. 2 The 
Crusaders dreamed of an alliance with those distant Christians under the 
leadership of the imaginary Prester John, who might descend on the Holy 
Land and help in saving it from increasing Muslim pressure. Western mis¬ 
sionaries to the Far East, who traversed Central Asia and encountered Nes- 
torians everywhere, wrote about Prester John and his immense realm in 
Cathay. John of Monte Corvino, the first Latin archbishop of Khan Baliq, 
did so in 1305. It was not until Timur Lane (1336-1405) overran Transox- 
onia, together with Central and Western Asia, that Nestorian Christianity 
was obliterated from those regions. 3 


The romance of Nestorian Christianity in the Far East is one of the greatest 
revelations of modern scholarship. The Syriac Breviartim Chaldanicnm x 
states that ‘by St Thomas the Chinese also with the Ethiopians have turned 
to the truth,’ that ‘St Thomas has flown and gone to the Kingdom of the 
Height among the Chinese’, and that ‘the Indians and the Chinese . . . bring 
worship in commemoration of Thomas to Thy name, Our Saviour’. These 

1 Stewart, pp. 211-13; Vine, pp. 164-7. 

2 Stewart, p. 206. 

3 Ibid., p. 136 et seq.; Vine, pp. 61-2, 127-30 and 164-7; Kidd, Eastern Christendom , 
pp. 420-3. 

4 Ed. P. Bedjan, 3 vols. (Paris, 1886), III, 476 and 478; cf. Moule, Christians in China , 
pp. 11 and 26; Atiya, Crusade in Eater Middle Ages , pp. 234-5. 


statements, which trace the introduction of Christianity into China to the age 
of the Apostles, cannot be accepted as historical. Nevertheless, the Nestorians 
must have reached China in the early Middle Ages. The first recorded mission 
is known to have taken place during the patriarchate of Yeshuyab II (628- 
43), or more precisely, around the year 635. This has been proved by a great 
stone monument 1 which Jesuit missionaries discovered in 1625 at Si-ngnan-fu 
in the province of Shensi in Middle China. Its object is set out in the opening 
phrase of a long inscription in Chinese: ‘Eulogy on a Monument commem¬ 
orating the propagation of the Luminous Religion (i.e., Christianity) in the 
Middle Kingdom, with a preface to the same, composed by Ching-Ching a 
priest of the Ta-ch’in monastery, Adam priest and Chorepiscopos and papas 
(pope) of Zhinostan.’ 2 After a very interesting outline of Christianity and the 
Bible, it is stated that the ‘polished emperor’ Tai-Tsung (627-50) received 
with honour in 635 a certain A-lo-pen, a Persian monk of high virtue who 
‘carried the true Scriptures’. The emperor read his books and commanded 
that they should be made known throughout the realm. Three years later 
(638), a decree was published ordering the local officials of the I-ning-gang 
quarter to build a monastery for this holy man and twenty regular monks. 
Before the end of the century the new religion had spread in ten provinces 
though with varying fortunes in successive reigns. The inscription notes that 
the stone was erected in 781 during the days of Catholicos Hanan Shua, the 
exact date of whose decease in 779 did not reach them until the completion 
of its consecration. It ends in Syriac script with the names of 128 persons, 
comprising priests and a metropolitan named Adam. On the whole, the 
Nestorians encountered no serious opposition to the preaching of Chris¬ 
tianity in China during the seventh and eighth centuries. It was in the ninth 
century that this suffered, together with other foreign religions, its first 
deadly blows, when the Emperor Wu-tsung (840-6) decreed the return of 
all priests and monks to secular life. Although Christianity declined after¬ 
wards, it was never really obliterated from China until the late Middle Ages. 
This is clear from Syriac and Chinese sources which are confirmed by ac¬ 
counts of Arab travellers. To quote one example, Abu Dulaf, a poet at the 
Samanid court of Nasr II b. Ahmad of Bukhara (913-42), was enjoined by 
his master in 942 to accompany a Chinese embassy back to its native country. 
Later he wrote an interesting account of his travels in which he recorded that 
he had met Christians and seen churches in several towns of China. 3 In 
1076, two Syrian monasteries were to be found in China - one at Sianfu and 

1 Saeki, Nestorian Monument in China , passim.; Stewart, p. 167 et seq.; J. Foster, The 
Church of the Tang Dynasty , pp. 91 et seq.; Moule, pp. 27 et seq.; Vine, pp. 130-5; K. S. 
Latourctte, History of Christian Missions in China (New York, 1929), pp. 51-60; Fortescue, 
pp. 106-8; Kidd, pp. 420-3. 

2 C. E. Couling, The Luminous Religion, p. 49. 

3 Atiya, p. 236. 

CHINA • 263 

another at Chengtu. 1 Though no explicit and continuous record is available 
of subsequent metropolitans of China, we at least know that about 1093 the 
Patriarch Sabaryeshu" III appointed one Bishop George to Sestan and then 
transferred him to the see of Khatai (Cathay!) in North China. In 1266, 
Bishop John of the diocese of Hami, or Kamul, in China was present at the 
consecration of Patriarch Denha I 2 (1265-81). There were three Nestorian 
churches in the city of Iamzi (Yang-Chau-fu); and a Nestorian Christian 
called Mar Sargius who ruled over the province of Kian Su in China 3 in the 
years 1278-80. He was appointed to an office in Kublai Khan’s household, 
and in 1281 built as many as seven monasteries. At the time the inhabitants 
of Chin-kiang-fu included 215 Christians. 4 At the close of the thirteenth cen¬ 
tury, we find a man of Chinese extraction on the throne of the Nestorian 
patriarchs in the person of Yahballaha III (1280-1317). The son of a Uigar 
archdeacon, born in Koshang in North China in 1245, and bearing the Syriac 
name of Morkos or Mark, was elevated to the see of Cathay and was sub¬ 
sequently elected patriarch while on pilgrimage at Jerusalem in 1280. Ex¬ 
cellent physicians, technicians, scribes and artisans, the Nestorians were in 
demand at the Mongol court. Rabban Sauma, a Uigar born in Peking, who 
became metropolitan of Khan Baliq, was sent by the Mongol khan on a 
diplomatic mission to Europe lasting from 1287 to 1288. He visited Con¬ 
stantinople, Rome, Paris and Bordeaux and conferred with the Emperor 
Andronicus II (1282-1328), King Philip IV of France (1285-1314) and 
Edward I of England (1272-1307) as well as Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92). 
Chinese sources and both John of Monte Corvino and Marco Polo testify 
to the existence of Nestorians in China during the fourteenth century. There 
were twenty-three Christian families in Chinkiang about 1333 and three 
Nestorian churches at Yangchow in the early decades of the century. 5 
With the advent of the Roman Catholic missionaries, the position of both 
Nestorian and Latin Christians was weakened by their quarrels in the face of 
the incoming Muslim. Then the Ming dynasty took control of China from the 
hands of the tolerant successors of Kublai Khan in 1369, and a wave of 
merciless persecution of alien religions began. It ended in the total extinction 
of Christianity in China by the turn of the century, while Timur simul¬ 
taneously carried out the same destructive mission in Central Asia. 

One relic of Nestorianism in the heart of Asia is said to be the survival of 
its ritual in a debased form in the Lamaism of Tibet. The striking resem- 
blances with Lamaist Monasticism, the use of holy water, incense and vest¬ 
ments of a similar character to Nestorian practices, must be traced to the 
days of the Nestorian missionary in the high Middle Ages. It has sometimes 

1 Vine, p. 135. 2 Stewart, pp. 189-90. 

3 Ibid., p. 193. 4 Browne, pp. 104-5. 

5 Moule, pp. 145 ct scq.; Latourettc, pp. 64-5; Vine, pp. 167-8. 


been suggested that Jesus came to Central Asia, from where He carried 
back those Buddhist teachings known to be identical with Christianity from 
Tibetan Lamaism. Since Buddhism did not reach Tibet until 640, it is un¬ 
necessary for the historian to waste his time refuting a baseless argument. Of 
more interest is the fact that an officiating lama recalls a Nestorian bishop 
celebrating the Nestorian liturgy. 1 

Other Places 

The most enduring Nestorian contribution to the planting of Christianity 
in Asia undoubtedly took place in Southern India, where the Church of Mar 
Thoma is still a remarkable organization. Though it has changed obedience 
and is even divided, its origins at any rate must be associated with Nes- 
torianism. A special section of this study will be devoted to that ancient 
church. We are left with the impression that Nestorian missionary activities 
in the Middle Ages knew no bounds in Asia. Apart from penetrating the 
Asiatic mainland in every direction, they preached the Gospel in such 
obscure places as the little island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, some dis¬ 
tance from the shores of Arabia and Africa. The Alexandrine explorer of the 
sixth century, Cosmas Indicopleustes, mentions the existence of Christians 
on that island. On two occasions we read of the consecration of a bishop of 
Socotra first in the catholicate of Enos (877-84) and then in the reign of the 
Patriarch Sabar-Ishu" III (1057-72). Again, Bishop Kyriakos of Socotra 
was present at the consecration of Yahballaha III in 1282 at the city of Bagh¬ 
dad. 2 The Portuguese also found their isolated settlement on the way to 
India and forced them to become Uniates in the fifteenth century. 

Under the rule of the caliphate, Nestorian ambitions extended from eas¬ 
tern to western Asia and even to the strongholds of Monophysitism and 
Orthodoxy from which they had been barred by the Roman empire. Their 
missions therefore followed the Arab conquerors into Syria, Cyprus and 
Egypt, and the first Nestorian metropolitan of Damascus was nominated in 
the seventh century. Twice there is mention of a Nestorian bishop in Egypt 
in the middle of the eighth and eleventh centuries. Another bishopric at 
Tarsus seems to have been in existence until the middle of the fifteenth cen¬ 
tury. Jerusalem, too, normally had a Nestorian bishop who attended to the 
needs of pilgrims of his rite. 3 Yet it would be a mistake to over-rate the 
importance of their attempts in those regions. There was no continuity of 

1 L. A. Waddell, The Buddhism of Tibet (London, 1895), pp. 9, 421-2; cf. Fortcscuc, 
p. 109; Stewart, p. 252. 

2 Fortcscuc, pp. 104-5. 

3 Vine, pp. 125- 26. 


succession in any of those bishoprics, and the numbers of Nestorians was 
never considerable in any of those countries. Even in Jerusalem, which was 
raised to a metropolitan see in 1065, the Nestorians suffered from frequent in¬ 
terruptions, and their archbishops disappeared completely from the city 
after 1616. The few Nestorian converts in the Levant had either relapsed to 
their old creeds or became Uniates, as in the island of Cyprus. 


Let us recapitulate the state of Nestorian expansion at its height, say in the 
year 1000, in order to see the magnitude of this achievement. The metropoli¬ 
tan dioceses under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the patriarch of the Church 
of the East were at least twenty in number with several bishoprics within 
each province. Traceable material concerning the twenty provinces may be 
summed up as follows: 1 

(1) Patriarchalis, with a metropolitan at Kashkar and bishops at HIrah, 
Anbar, Karkha, Na'amania, Buazicha, Badaria, Tirhana, Kosra, 
Ocbara, Wasit, Rada and Naphara 

(2) Jundishapur, with a metropolitan at Jundishapur and bishops at Susa, 
Ahwaz and Suster 

(3) Nisibis, with a metropolitan at Nisibis and bishops at Bakerda, Balada, 
Arzun, Gesluna, Mardin, Amida (modern Diyarbekr), Maiperket, 
Harran and Raqqa 

(4) Teredon, with a metropolitan at Basrah and bishops at Ubullah, 
Destesana and Nahr-al-Marah 

(5) Mosul, with a metropolitan at Mosul and bishops at Nineveh, Beth- 
Bagas, Haditha, Dasena, Nuhadra and Urmia 

(6) Adiabene, with a metropolitan at Erbil and bishops at Maalta, Zuabia 
and Caftoun 

(7) Garamaea, with a metropolitan at Karkh and bishops at Dakuka, and 

Buazicha - distinctive dioceses from those in the province of Patriar 

(8) Halwan, with a metropolitan at Halwan and a bishop at Ramadan 

(9) Fars, with a metropolitan at Rawardshir and bishops at Shiraz, Shapur 
and Astachar, and on the islands of Socotra, Catara, Masamig, Drin 
and Ormuz 

(10) Khurasan, with a metropolitan at MarworMervandabishopatNishapur 

1 The following list has been compiled by Vine, pp. 123-4, with additional material 
from the same author, pp. 119-20. 


(n) Atropatene, with a metropolitan at Taurisium and bishops at Mara gh a 
and Achlat 

(12) Herat, with a metropolitan at Herat and a bishop for Segestan 

(13) Arran, with a metropolitan at Bardaa 

(14) Rayy, with a metropolitan at Rayy and a bishop at Isfahan 

(15) Dailam, with a metropolitan at Mukar 

(16) India, with intermittent metropolitans at various places 

(17) China, with metropolitans at Sianfu and numerous undefined bisho¬ 

(18) Turkestan, with metropolitans at Samarqand and numerous undefined 

(19) Damascus, with a metropolitan in Damascus 

(20) Jerusalem, instituted as bishopric in 835 and raised to a metropolitan 
see in 1065 

There is little doubt that however impressive this list may appear, it must 
be regarded as still incomplete. Assemani’s estimate of the thirteenth century 
puts the metropolitan provinces of the Nestorians at twenty-five with an 
average of eight to ten episcopal sees for each province, thus totalling 200 to 
250 Bishoprics. 1 These are figures in which any church could take pride. 
But destiny had a grim fate in store for the Nestorian church. By the end of 
the fourteenth century the Mongol hordes had overrun Central Asia and the 
Middle East, leaving behind them a trail of terror and burned cities. Timur 
Lane, who was himself a Muslim, spared neither Muslim nor Christian in his 
conquests. Even Baghdad was levelled to the ground. With the exception of 
the Malabarese church in southern India, all the missionary labours of cen¬ 
turies outside Persia went with the wind. The Nestorian church began a new 
chapter of decline. 

1 Assemani, Bibl. Orient Ill, 2, 630 et seq. cf. Fortescuc, p. 108. 


First Three Centuries 

The Nestorian Church survived the frequent persecutions under the Sassanid 
empire until the seventh century, when the advent of the Arabs started a new 
era in its history. During the reign of Catholicos Yeshuyab II (628-44) the 
Muslim invaders seized Seleucia-Ctesiphon after the battle of al-Qadisiya in 
637, and subsequently the whole empire succumbed to their armies. By the 
year 643, the Arabs had reached the Indian frontier. Yazdagird III, the last of 
the Sassanids, was a fugitive until he was assassinated by one of his own 
subjects at Marw in 652. With his disappearance from the scene, the caliphs 
became sole rulers of Persia with no rival native claimants. Under the Ortho¬ 
dox caliphs (632-61) and the Umayyads (661-750), Persia became a simple 
province in the vast Arab empire, whose seat of government was moved 
from Mecca to Damascus under the latter dynasty. With the coming of the 
Abbasids (750-1258), who founded their new capital, Ba gh dad, Madinat 
al-Salam or the ‘City of Peace’, on the banks of the Tigris, the centre of 
authority shifted eastward back to Persia. Thus Persia began to recover its 
lost position in world events, and we must assume that the change had its 
impact on the Nestorians and their Church, though it is doubtful whether 
the new master meant any alteration in their political or social status. Under 
Islam, they continued to thrive as a special community in the same way as 
they had done under the Sassanids. Their status was defined in the Synod of 
Seleucia in 410 and was recognized by Yazdagird I (399-420). The Muslim 
rulers readily accepted the existing position of the Nestorians with all their 
rights and duties. 

In the latter days of Sassanid rule, however, the Nestorians were subject to 
excessive taxation, the pretext being the Byzantine wars. Shapur II doubled 
his normal impositions, and Chosroes I exacted a poll tax from Christians en 
lieu of military service. The Arabs levied a land tax (Kharaj) and the poll 
tax (ji\yalj) in the same way as their predecessors. The Nestorians suffered 
political disabilites under both empires. On the other hand, Christians as a 
whole seemed to enjoy more favour with the Muslims than other conquered 



communities. Of course they shared with Jews and Zoroastrians the privi¬ 
lege of being dhimmis , or protected subjects. The Qur’an makes it clear that 
Christians are next in religious kinship to the Muslims before all other races: 
‘Thou wilt certainly find nearest in affection to them that believe those who 
say, “We are Christians”. This is because some of them are priests and 
monks, and because they are free from pride’ (Sura V-85). They are des¬ 
cribed as the ‘People of the Book’ (he., the Bible) and also the ‘People of the 
Covenant’, that is, the ‘Covenant of "Umar’ 1 which granted them full pro¬ 
tection. Scholars question the authenticity of this covenant and assume that 
Christians forged such documents at later dates for privileges with Muslim 
rulers. The Nestorian chronicler Mari states that the Nestorian Patriarch 
Yeshuyab II saw the Prophet Muhammad, who gave him a document 
granting the Nestorian people certain privileges, and that the Orthodox 
Caliph "Umar confirmed its terms. 2 Again, the Caliph 'All accorded to the 
Nestorians a similar charter in recognition of their honourable behaviour 
with his army at Mosul, where they provided his soldiers with food and 
water. The scrolls of Mount Sinai preserved in St Catherine’s Monastery 
contain five copies of the so-called ‘Covenant of the Prophet’. 3 The fact 
remains that early Islam respected Christianity and the clergy, and that the 
Caliphs treated Christians with remarkable tolerance. As to the Nestorians, 
Assemani states that within a couple of decades of the Arab invasion, the 
bishop of Adiabene wrote to say that the Muslims were not so unjust as they 
were thought to be, that they were not far removed from Christianity, and 
that they honoured the clergy and protected churches. 4 As late as the eleventh 
century, another Nestorian bishop, Eliya, metropolitan of Nisibis (1008-49), 
made a statement on the relations between Christians and Muslims in which 
he asserted that oppression of Christians was discountenanced by Muslim 
jurists. 5 

During the early centuries of the caliphate, the Christians enjoyed much 
better conditions than in the later Middle Ages. The Arabs loved justice and 
respected the conquered races’ systems of government as well as the superi¬ 
ority of their cultures. Coming from an arid desert where cultural standards 
were limited to what the desert could offer, they sought for themselves a 
place in the superior civilizations of the peoples now under their rule. Unlike 
the Barbarians who wrecked the Roman empire, the Arabs did not barbarize 
the territories they conquered, but rather aspired to their intellectual attain¬ 
ments. In Persia they discovered the centres of Nestorian culture at Nisibis, 
Jundishapur and Marw or Merv, which they encouraged and utilized. These 

1 Text may he found in Al-MashriqQuarterly , XII (1909), 681-2. 

2 Browne, pp. 41-2; Vine, pp. 89-90; Fortcscuc, p. 92. 

3 Atiya, The Arabic MSS. of Mount Sinai, p. 26. 

1 Assemani, III, 1, 131; cf. Fortcscuc, p. 92; Vine, p. 90. 

5 Browne, pp. 48-9. 


schools furnished the state with an able body of administrative personnel, 
notably accountants and scribes. Physicians, teachers and interpreters were 
also supplied by the educated Nestorian community. The Nestorians knew 
how to make themselves necessary to the new regime. In spite of intermittent 
waves of repression, they flourished and sometimes gained enormous for¬ 
tunes. It is unnecessary to give a full account of the persecutions, and thus 
bring out the darker side of a bright age. Each persecution, to be under¬ 
stood properly, has to be examined in the light of all its details. Some were 
due to the hatred of a Muslim bigot; others were caused by Christians in¬ 
triguing among themselves. The pressure on Christians by f Umar II (717- 
20) was pre-eminently economic. The reign of Mahdi (775-85) was marked by 
one of the worst persecutions, including the persecution of Christian women. 
Harun al-Rashld (785-809), on being told by a malicious courtier named 
Hamdun that some Christians worshipped the bones of the dead in their 
churches at Basrah and Ubullah, ordered the churches to be destroyed. 
When the truth about these sacred relics was explained to him, however, he 
rebuilt them. 1 In the reign of al-Mutawakkil (846-61), the Nestorian Pat¬ 
riarch Theodosius was deposed and manhandled and disabilities were im¬ 
posed on Christians, this time as the result of a pernicious intrigue bv a 
Christian named Ibrahim ibn Nuh, who complained to the caliph against his 
catholicos out of jealousy. 2 Sometimes mob riots against the Christians 
occurred as in the case of the burning of a Nestorian church in the time 
of Patriarch John VI (1013-20). 

As time passed and the number of Muslims in the countries of the Middle 
East became greater, a system of Christian disabilities developed in the 
official and legal circles. Though this system was not regularly applied, it 
seems instructive to outline it from a contemporary Arabic juridical source. 
The eleventh century writer al-Mawardi, 3 commenting on the Covenant of 
Dhimmi protection, elaborates the following thesis. A Dhimmi was bound 
by the contract of his protection to revere the Muslim Holy Scripture, re¬ 
frain from uttering a falsehood against the Prophet Muhammad, and never to 
speak ill of Islam as a religion. Furthermore, he was forbidden to approach a 
Muslim woman for marriage or illicit intent, to try to apostatize a Muslim or 
harm his person or property, and to assist an enemy of Islam or harbour a 
spy. All these obligations were inevitable. Others were commendable and 
included the use of a distinctive dress, the prohibition from erecting buildings 
higher than those of Muslims, from using church bells, from drinking wine 
and displaying a cross or a pig in public, from pomp and lamentation in 

1 Vine, pp. 93-4. 

2 Incident reported by Mari and Bar Hcbrxus in the Syriac Chronicles ; cf. Browne, p. 54; 
Vine, p. 95. 

3 Cf. Browne, pp. 46-7, quoting Fagnan’s version of al-Mawardi’s ‘Lcs statuts gouvern- 
mentaux’, pp. 305-6. Sec also Vine, pp. 99-100. 


burial offices, and from horse riding. A breach of the items enumerated in 
the latter clause was legally punishable, though in practice considerable 
laxity was accorded by the rulers in their enforcement. The position of 
Christians in society was far from being despicable. As one commentator 
put it, they were highly respected and "some of them are scribes of the 
sultans, and chamberlains of the kings, and physicians of the nobles, and 
perfumers and bankers’. 1 The great teachers of the early Abbasid times in 
Baghdad were Nestorians. The great academy of learning called the ‘House of 
Wisdom’ (Ddr al-Hikmah ) founded by Caliph al-Ma’mun in 830, was staffed 
essentially by Nestorian scholars who mastered Syriac, Greek, and Arabic, 
and who were commissioned to translate the scientific and philosophical 
works of the Greeks. The pride of the age is the Nestorian Hunayn 2 b. 
Ishaq (809-73) who is credited with the translation of a hundred works, 
although only a few have survived. Hunayn became the head of Ddr al- 
Hikmah and received a stipend of five hundred gold dinars per month, 3 
while al-Ma’mun paid him in addition the weight in gold of the books 
translated by him. Hunayn was assisted and succeeded by his son Ishaq, his 
nephew Hubaysh ibn al-Hasan, and Tsa b. Yahya b. Ibrahim - all evidently 
Nestorian scholars. It was through these and others that the miracle of the 
Greek mind was transplanted into Arabic literature. Nestorian physicians, 
too, found their way to the caliph’s palaces by winning their confidence 
through efficient and honest medical service. Caliph al-Mansur summoned 
Jurjis b. Bakhtishu, a noted Nestorian physician, from the medical academy 
and hospital at Jundishapur to treat him for serious stomach trouble about 
765. Afterwards this doctor settled in Ba gh dad, where he won great fame at 
Harun al-Rashld’s court. He established a family of medical specialists lasting 
six generations at a time when technical knowledge became a monopoly 
and was secretly passed from father to son. In fact, his own son Jibrll b. 
Bakhtishu was appointed as al-Ma’mun’s private physician and had free 
access to his palace. Hunayn b. Ishaq, who combined with his duties as a 

1 Cf. Browne, p. 52. 

2 His full name is Abu Zayd Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadl of Herta (Arabic, al-Hirah), 
usually called Joannitius by Latin writers. His apprenticeship in medicine started under 
Yahya or Yuhanna b. Masawayh, the Baghdad physician. But he broke away from him 
and went to complete his education in the territory of the Greeks and mastered their 
language and science. After rising in al-Mutawakkil’s court, his downfall was precipitated 
by another Nestorian, Isra’il b. Taifurl. He died in 873 a.d. Though most of his works 
were in Arabic, he wrote in Syriac three books: one on the fear of God, a Syriac grammar 
and a Syriac dictionary used by later Syriac writers such as Bar f AlI and Bar Bahlul in the 
ninth and tenth centuries. W. Wright, pp. 211-12; Chabot, p. 112. 

3 From the Latin denarius , the dinar was the standard gold currency weighing approxi¬ 
mately 4 grams. It consisted of 10 or 12 dirhams (from the Greek drachme ), a silver unit 
with a nominal value approximating 20 cents. Though somewhat arbitrary, the equivalent 
of the stipend quoted above must be about $r,ooo in gold with a much greater purchasing 
power than that of our times. 


great translator a knowledge of the medical arts, was similarly nominated as 
Caliph al-Mutawakkil’s private physician. These men appear to have 
accumulated tremendous wealth 1 and were highly respected in society for 
their skill and integrity. 2 

While individuals thus gained position, fame and wealth during the first 
three centuries of Arab rule in Persia, the Nestorian church in general was 
not behind in its international activities and the expansion of its religious 
authority in the East. In reality, that age marked the peak of Nestorian 
history. Christians were tempted to claim full rights of equality with all 
Muslim fellow-citizens. The Caliph al-Miftadid (892-902) agreed to the 
appointment of a Nestorian as governor of the important region of al-Anbar 
in the neighbourhood of Baghdad, the capital of the empire. This unprece¬ 
dented decision vexed the Muslim population and incurred a great deal of 
jealousy and animosity towards the Christians. The rule of the ‘Covenant of 
c Umar’ had made it clear that Christians should not found new churches, 
though they were allowed to preserve and repair old ones. The Nestorians 
ignored this injunction and, in times of peace, took to building new and large 
churches. Cyprian, bishop of Nisibis, spent 56,000 gold dinars on a single 
church which he erected in 759 during the caliphate of al-Mansur (754-75). 3 
This ostentation had detrimental repercussions on the position of Nes¬ 
torians and the Nestorian church in later centuries. The progress made by 
the Christians is depicted in the ninth century by so celebrated an authority 
as al-Jahiz (d. 868/9), who accepts their wealth and power and praises their 
business ability, but revolts against their breach of earlier restrictions im¬ 
posed upon them by the basic law of Islam. 4 While such attacks were inter¬ 
mittently launched against the Nestorians from without, the Church was 
gradually growing in wealth and worldliness from within. In the end, the 
elements of decay began to set in with disastrous consequences. 

Beginning of Decline 

When the caliphs discarded the old Sassanid metropolis of Seleucia-Ctesiphon 
and built their new capital Ba gh dad between the years 762 and 766, the 

1 Jibril b. Bakhtishti ( 830) is said to have amassed a fortune of 88,800,000 silver 
dirhems in the reign of Caliph al-Ma’mun. George D. Malech, History of the Syrian Nation 
and the Old Evangelical-Apostolic Church of the East (Minneapolis, 1910), mentions a case of 
treating the caliph’s aunt for rheumatism, for which Harun al-Rashid rewarded him with 
500,000 dinars (p. 275). 

2 P. K. Hitti, Hist, of the Arabs , pp. 309-14. 

3 Vine, pp. 102-3; Browne, p. 48. 4 Cf. Browne, pp. 47-8. 


Nestorian Patriarch Hananyeshu‘ II (774-9) considered it expedient to move 
the patriarchate in 775 to that city though still reserving the old title of 
Seleucia-Ctesiphon. As head of one of the richest and most influential com¬ 
munities in the Islamic empire, his position in the central administration 
became one of relative importance, sometimes through favour with the 
Caliphs themselves and sometimes through bribery and gifts. Spiritually, 
however, the patriarchal leadership was on the decline at a time when the 
church had reached the furthest limits of its extension in Asia. The pat¬ 
riarchs were beginning to look like civil servants as much as ecclesiastical 
dignitaries and were occasionally dispatched on diplomatic missions to 
Constantinople and Rome. The patriarchal throne was coveted by ambitious 
candidates who were ready to buy episcopal votes for large sums. Even in 
the latter part of the eighth century, signs of corruption could be detected in 
church matters. At the election of Timothy I (779-823), the candidate laid 
at the disposal of his electors heavy sacks to be opened after his success, 
presumably full of money. Timothy succeeded, and when his supporters 
opened the sacks they found them full of stones. He defended himself by 
retorting: ‘The priesthood is not to be purchased for money’. The disap¬ 
pointed bishops became angry and wanted to replace him with his old rival 
Ephraem of Jundishapur. But it was too late, since he had procured the 
caliph’s ratification of the original election, and he ably broke up the rebel 
forces. He proved, however, to be one of the most capable patriarchs of the 
Nestorian church. He loved learning and encouraged schools. He was in 
favour with Harun al-Rashld. He reduced greatly the habit of marriage among 
bishops and fought heresies such as that of the Msallians. He had more than 
two hundred suffragans and entertained hopes of spreading Nestorianism 
westward by writing to invite the Maronites to join his church and accept 
his creed. At the time his aspirations seemed laudable, though they came to 
nothing. The length of his reign, more than forty years, enabled him to give 
the church that stability which it began to lose in the subsequent reigns. He 
was also a prolific writer. He left an astronomical treatise entitled the Book 
of the Stars as well as a correspondence numbering some two hundred 
epistles, an Apology of the Christian Faith in the form of a discussion with the 
Caliph al-Mahdi, many homilies, and an interpretation of the theology of 
Gregory Nazienzen. 1 

The church, however, became a prey to rivalry for the patriarchal throne, 
and this led to prolonged vacancies. Often it was won in the end by the 
highest bidder. Records of figures are incomplete but in the twelfth century 
at least three patriarchs were invested after the payment of considerable 
bribes. Yeshuyab V is known to have secured the patriarchate for five 

1 Chabot, IJtterature , pp. 108-9. Half of his Epistles were published in text and French 
tr. by Braun (Paris, 1914). 


thousand dinars in 1148. 1 That state was not altogether the outcome of 
external persecution; it was incurred by the internal condition of the church 
as well. 

We have also to remember that the decline of the Nestorian church, es¬ 
pecially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was in one sense a reflection 
of the general decline characterizing the whole structure of the caliphate 
itself. In the ninth century the Caliph al-Mu r tasim (833-42) made his momen¬ 
tous decision to employ a bodyguard of Turkish slaves for the first time in 
Abbasid history. Like the Barbarian legionaries engaged by the Roman 
emperors, those Turks ended by wresting all power from the hands of the 
caliphs, who were thus rendered mere figure-heads and symbols of a great 
past that was no more. The Islamic empire was broken up into independent 
or semi-independent petty dynasties. Apart from Spain and the Shfite 
Idrlsids and Aghlabids of North Africa, who had no relations whatever with 
Ba gh dad, the Tulunids (868-905) and after them the Ikhshidids (935-69) 
in Egypt owed the Abbasid caliph a shadowy allegiance, while the Hamda- 
nids (929-1003) in North Syria swung to Fatimid rule (969-1171) soon after 
the establishment of their caliphate in Egypt. In the east, the situation was 
not much happier on account of the dismemberment of the provinces into 
another set of petty principalities. While the Tahirids (820-72) planted their 
power in Khurasan during the ninth century, the Saffarids (867-903) wrested 
Sijistan in the same period, the Samanids (874-999) became independent in 
Transoxonia and parts of Persia, and the Gh aznawids (962-1186) became 
established in A fgh anistan and pushed their rule over the Indian Punjab 
through the twelfth century, to quote only a few outstanding cases. The 
havoc which resulted from this patchwork was superseded by the rise of the 
formidable Mongol power which precipitated the final downfall of the 
Abbasid caliphate. The Nestorian church and people lived amidst all these 
tremendous upheavals, and the ensuing confusion necessarily told upon the 
administration of their community. Nevertheless, they survived the Abbasid 
caliphate itself and lived not too unhappily under Mongol rule, for the 
Mongols appeared in their turn also to favour the Nestorians. It is true that 
they must have suffered with everybody else from the devastations of the 
hordes of Jengiz Khan (1162-1227), who in the early decades of the thir¬ 
teenth century left the flowering cities of Bukhara, Samarqand, Balkh and 
Herat depopulated and in ashes. Afterwards, Mangu (1251-60) the Great 
Khan decided in the opening year of his reign to incorporate China into his 
vast empire and to consolidate his rule over the whole continent of Asia. 
Thus he sent his two brothers at the head of two great armies, Kublai Khan 
to the east and Hulagu to the west. Kublai Khan (1260-94) succeeded Mangu 
as Hulagu inaugurated the Il-Khanate of Persia, which lasted to the four- 

1 Vine, p. 106. 

274 • the nestorians and the caliphate 

teenth century (1258-1335). The details of these conquests and their reper¬ 
cussions 1 are much too complicated and involved to be treated here. Never¬ 
theless, certain landmarks are worthy of special note owing to their direct 
bearing on Nestorian Christianity. It is said that Mangu Khan was almost 
a Christian himself. The extension of the Pax tartarica to China must have 
paved the way for Nestorian expansion into the Far East. In the West, 
Hulagu’s sack of Baghdad and the final collapse of the Abbasid caliphate in 
1258 was accompanied by some interesting events from the Nestorian view¬ 
point. Hulagu, of course, had a Christian wife - Dokuz Khatun 2 - and he 
was not averse to Christians. When the last caliph, al-Musta r sim (1242-58), 
saw the end coming, he dispatched his wazlr, Ibn al-'Alqami, in the 
company of the Nestorian Patriarch Machicha II (1257-65) to seek less un¬ 
favourable terms of surrender. Though Hulagu refused to grant them audi¬ 
ence, the incident shows how far the caliphs depended on the Nestorian 
catholicos. When the city was ruthlessly taken by storm, and the caliph and 
his retinue massacred together with an estimate of 800,000 dead, most of the 
Nestorians saved their lives by taking refuge in churches. Then as calm re¬ 
turned to the city, Christians were granted full freedom, and, what was more, 
the catholicos was given a palace where the caliph had kept his secretariat 
(j Ddr al-Daivadar). The patriarch moved into it and built a church there. 
Hulagu’s successor, Abaga (1260-5) was j ust as agreeable to the Christians 
of Persia as his predecessor, but they apparently abused the ruler’s trust by 
taking the law in their hands. This is shown in an untoward incident of the 
reign of the Patriarch Denha 1 (1265-81), who smuggled an old Nestorian 
who had apostatized to Islam from Tekrit in 1268 and drowned him in the 
Tigris. This indiscretion bore its evil fruit later. Moreover, he rashly con¬ 
ducted processions in the capital under the protection of Mongol soldiers 
who manhandled the muslim spectators. These defiant acts of ostentation on 
behalf of the Christians, however, did not stop the internal confusion of the 
church hierarchy. The outrageous episode of the seizure and torture of the 
Nestorian Patriarch Yahballaha III (1281-1371) by the authorities on ac¬ 
count of false accusations brought against him by two of his own bishops is a 
clear demonstration of the lamentable state of the church organization. When 
the Patriarch was acquitted and the Mongol Khan offered to kill his accusers, 
the saintly man disapproved and was content with their degradation and ex- 
communication. 3 But the Mongol disgust with the Nestorian bishops re¬ 
mained, and the Il-Khans began to oscillate between Christianity and Islam 
in this period. In fact, the first western Il-Khan of Persia to adopt Islam 
openly was Ahmad (1280-4). He was disowned by both Kublai Khan in the 

1 Howorth, History of the Mongols , Vol. Ill, pp. 154, 245-7, 2 ^5> 2 75> 396; Browne, 
pp. 146-78; Vine, pp. 141-69; Hitti, pp. 450-89. 

2 Howorth, I, 542. 3 Browne, pp. 156-7. 


east and his own successor Arghun (1284-91), who tended again to favour 
the Christians and sought alliance with the European potentates and the 
Roman pope through the famous mission of Bar Sauma in 1287. The tradi¬ 
tion of friendliness to the Christians persisted until the death of Baikhatu 
( I2 9 I_ 5)> who left two claimants to his throne. The first was Baidu, a 
Christian at heart who rebuilt the ruined churches, and the second was 
Ghazan (1295-1304), who slew his rival and seized the throne. On that occa¬ 
sion he publicly declared his final conversion to Islam in the same year. The 
position of the Christians was thus reversed. The patriarch was forced to 
leave the palace of ‘Dar al-Dawadar’, and the Arabs and the Kurds started to 
combat the Nestorians in 1295—6 without respite or deterrent. The turn of 
the century witnessed the renewal of Nestorian persecution with intense 
ferocity, even against the will of the Il-Khan. The massacre of the Christians 
assumed fearful dimensions in particular at the city of Maragha. 

The details of the Maragha persecution are given in The History of Yah- 
hall ah a III . 1 The patriarch was violently driven by the masses and subjected 
to much humiliation. One bishop was robbed and tortured. The monastery 
of St Thaddams, where the relics of the saint rested, was destroyed. Yahbal- 
laha was saved only by payment of a heavy ransom and the intercession of 
Hay ton, king of Armenia. But the movement had gone even beyond Ghazan’s 
power to control. In the following year (1297) Erbil became the scene of 
religious strife until Gh azan raced to arrest the new outbreak. The patriarch 
was allowed to rebuild the Mara gh a monastery and lead a life of precarious 
peace until the accession of Uljaitu (1304-16), who is said to have been 
brought up as a Christian in spite of his public profession of Islam, first in 
accordance with the Sunni rite, then changing to the Shfa, whereupon the 
populace changed his title from Khudabanda (Servant of God) to Khar- 
banda (Muleteer). 2 He was a vacillating and weak ruler, and the fact that he 
behaved mercifully towards the Christians and abolished the vexatious poll- 
tax was marred by his inept government. The thirteenth century ended and 
the fourteenth opened amidst the confusion and disintegration of the II- 
Ivhanate of Persia. The reign of the last of the line, Abu /6aid (1316—35), was 
marked by another uproar at Amid (Diyarbakr), where twelve thousand 
Christians were carried into slavery or slain and Bishop Mar Gregorios was 
beaten to death, while the magnificent Church of the Holy Virgin was burnt 
down (1317). 3 It is difficult to know how much of the damage is Nestorian 

1 Ed. under that title by J. A. Montgomery (New York, 1927), and by Wallis Budge 
under the title The Monks of Kublai Khan (London, 1928). Cf. Browne, p. 165. 

2 Browne, p. 168. 

3 The story is detailed in the Syriac Chronicle of Bar Hebrteus. Assemani, III, ii, cxxxii- 
cxxxnii, asserts that that bishop was Jacobite; cf. Browne, pp. 172-3. The identity of the 
church is, however, difficult to define, since both revered Mart Maryam though the 
Nestorians rejected the term Theotokos. 

H E C— K. 


and how much Jacobite, though we must assume that at least part of it was 

The continuous shrinking of the Nestorian church and the tendency to¬ 
wards a steady decline among the Nestorian people were accelerated in the 
fourteenth century by a much graver event. Timur Lane (1396-1405), who 
was not a Mongol and did not share with them that innate clemency towards 
Christianity, but who was a Muslim of the fierce Turkish stock of the Berlas 
tribe, established himself at Samarqand after usurping the throne of his 
Mongol master, Chagatay Khan. He then began one of the most bewildering 
and fearful careers of conquest in history. Between 1380 and 1387 he reduced 
to his sway Khurasan, Jurjan, Mazandaran, Sijistan, A fgh anistan, Pars, 
Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. He routed the forces of Toqtamish, Khan of the 
Golden Horde, in 1391, and in 1393 seized Ba gh dad together with the whole 
of Mesopotamia. Then he crossed to India, and after having overrun it, 
turned northwest to Anatolia and defeated the Ottoman Turks in the battle 
of Angora in 1402, and carried Sultan Bayezid I into captivity. Although the 
Timurid dynasty remained until about 1500, it had reached its widest ex¬ 
panse in Timur’s lifetime. Timur wiped out whole cities even more ruth¬ 
lessly than the Mongols. In Persia, for instance, he left a pyramid of 70,000 
skulls on the ruins of Isfahan and another of 90,000 on the ruins of Ba gh dad. 
Amidst these misfortunes, both Muslims and Christians suffered equally. 
The Christians were no longer in favour. On the contrary, when identified 
they paid a great penalty for their faith. 

The decline which had begun before Timur was thus increased. Witnesses 
had lost sight of older churches before the advent of Timur. The churches of 
Tirhana, Jundishapur, Balada, Dasena and Karkha had ceased to figure on 
records since 1318. Others, such as Beth Bagas and Gesluna, disappeared 
between 1318 and about 1360. After 1380, with Timur’s invasions, churches 
were obliterated in the greater towns, including Baghdad, Mosul, Erbil 
(Arbll), Nisibis, Bakerda (Gezira), Taurisium (Tibriz) and Maragha, which 
were strongholds of Nestorian Christianity, as well as other smaller towns 
such as Avadia, Urmia, Mardin, Amida (Diyarbakr) and Maiperkat. 1 Nes¬ 
torian Christianity as a national and international organization crumbled 
under Timur’s heels. Whole communities were massacred, others lost their 
ancient tenacity and entered the faith of the conqueror to save their skins, 
and the few survivors who retained their old religion fled from the open 
plains and cities and took refuge amidst the fastnesses of the Kurdistan 
mountains between Lake Urmia and Lake Van. Nestorianism was com¬ 
pletely forgotten in China and Central Asia. It became a distant memory in 
its old home of Persia and Mesopotamia. The Nestorians sank into poverty, 
ignorance and seclusion until they were rediscovered in modern times. 

1 Vine, p. 159. 


Seclusion, Schism and Re-Discovery 

Ever since the Timurid invasion of western Asia, the Nestorians had been 
gradually pushed out of the plains and central cities of Persia, Mesopotamia 
and Kurdistan to the only remaining places of safety, the Idakkiari mountain 
heights extending between Lake Urmia and Lake Van. Their flourishing 
communities were last heard of in 1551 at Taurisium (Tibriz) and in 1553 at 
Ba gh dad. The patriarchate had been moved from the city of the caliphs to 
Maragha, east of Lake Urmia. Even in Nisibis, the ancient stronghold of 
Nestorian scholarship, they seem to have disappeared from the scene around 
15 5 6. 1 They occupied roughly the triangular area between the two afore¬ 
mentioned lakes with Mosul at the head of the triangle. Their mountainous 
country, thus situated partly in Azerbaijan and mainly in Kurdistan, con¬ 
sisted of frontier territories between modern Persia and the Turkish empire 
comprising Mesopotamia. Wedged between two hostile states and sur¬ 
rounded by the wild Kurdish and Yazldee tribes, they led a precarious exis¬ 
tence for centuries and were segregated from civilization and the outer 
world to the extent that they were forgotten by other Christian nations and 
churches. In their long seclusion they fell an easy prey to ignorance and lost 
the ancient tradition of theological scholarship. Formalism became the dis¬ 
tinctive feature of their religious practices. In their unremitting strife for sur¬ 
vival, the leadership of their tribes had to be concentrated in the family which 
gave them their patriarch or catholicos, who grew to be not only their reli¬ 
gious head but also a kind of theocratic prince to whom they resorted for 
arbitration in secular as well as religious troubles. The patriarchate thus 
developed into a peculiarly hereditary institution amongst the Nestorians. 
Since the patriarchs remained celibate, the crown consequently passed from 
uncle to nephew. That system, which in all probability worked satisfac¬ 
torily during the early generations, had disastrous results in the long run. 
This was due to the fact that the patriarchal throne occasionally devolved 
upon children under the influence of their mothers or older sisters who 

1 Vine, p. 171. 

2 77 


handled the state affairs of the community. Ultimately the bishops also 
adopted the same hereditary procedure. In the course of the fifteenth century, 
the Nestorian people became restive about this state of things and some 
families decided to do awav with that method of succession. Thus, when the 
Patriarch Shinfiun bar Mama died in 1551, a number of bishops, supported 
by a considerable section of the Nestorian community, wished to elect a 
more suitable candidate than his own nephew ShinTun Denha. A decision 
was reached in favour of a more mature monk, the rabban of Hurmizd 
Monastery by the name of John Sulaka 1 whose election started the first 
serious schism of the Nestorian church in modern history. Franciscan mis¬ 
sionaries had already reached the Nestorian field by way of Jerusalem and 
evidently succeeded in convincing the new patriarch that he could strengthen 
his position if he were to accept the Roman profession together with con¬ 
firmation by the pope. On accepting the proposition, he was taken by them 
to Jerusalem, where the Roman Catholic Custodian of the Holy Sepulchre 
furnished him with letters of introduction to the Holy Pontiff, and thence he 
went to Rome. Pope Julius III (1550-5) received him well and ordained him 
patriarch upon his declaring the Catholic profession in 1553. Afterwards he 
returned home hoping that the new pallium would help him in regaining the 
whole community of Nestorians to his side. He failed in the attempt and ul¬ 
timately, perhaps through the plotting of his rival, was seized by the Turkish 
pasha of Diyarbekr and thrown into prison, where he was murdered. 
Nevertheless, the Uniate line was maintained by the election of EbedyeshCf 
(1555-67) to succeed him; and he, too, received the pallium in due course 
from Pope Pius IV (1559-65). After the next two patriarchs, c Aitallah and 
Denha Shirrfun, who retained a shadowy allegiance to Rome, and their sup¬ 
porters became indifferent and the union, and relations with the Holy See 
became irregular. Fortescue 2 states that the last Catholic profession was sub¬ 
mitted in 1670 by Mar Shirrf un XII; and since then the Sulaka line reverted 
to its old Nestorianism except for one solitary and restless attempt to bridge 
the breach with Rome in 1770. Even in that early period of the union, it 
is doubtful whether the original Nestorian practices were changed beyond a 
formal submission to the Catholic profession and the receipt of the pallium 
from Rome. 

The other line of succession began with Shirrfun Denha, whose standards 
of morality appeared to be at the root of the schism. In 1607 and 1657 two 
of his successors, Elias VI and Elias VII, thought to disarm their Uniate 
opponents by declaring the Catholic profession in their turn and obtaining 

1 Assemani, Bib!. Orientalis, I, 523-34. 

2 Lesser Eastern Churches , p. 102. The dates of the patriarchs become quite hazy in the 
modern period, and we find lots of anomalies and contradiction in secondary literature 
on the subject. 


a similar pallium. Curiously enough, the pallium was granted by the popes 
to both candidates, and accordingly there were two Uniate patriarchs - 
Elias at Mosul and Shirrfun at Urmia. 1 The two sat on the Nestorian throne 
and both were legally recognized by Rome. 2 So flimsy was the Romanist 
union that it grew more and more ineffective after Elias VII. In the middle of 
the eighteenth century, a certain archbishop of Diyarbakr called Joseph 
coveted that throne for himself and sought to buttress his claim by breaking 
away from the second line to start a third under Roman control and was 
accordingly granted papal confirmation and the pallium, too. With the 
return of the second line to papal allegiance, however, in 1826, the popes 
were persuaded to drop the third, which spontaneously disappeared from the 
scene of events in the course of the year. 

From this narrative of confused developments, it may be deduced that the 
Uniate Chaldasan 3 line now in Mosul paradoxically stems from the ancient 
Persian Church of the East, which had been the stronghold of Nestorianism 
against the West. Meanwhile the heirs to the Uniate line of Sulaka, at 
present in America, became the representatives of staunch resistance to 
Rome and the guardians of the old Nestorian doctrine. Apparently the 
former were politically the stronger of the two in Turkish times, since they 
were recognized by a special decree (firman) from the Sublime Porte, whereas 
the others ruled only by the consent of the people with the approval and 
under the protection of the amir of Kurdistan. Whenever the amir withdrew 
his safeguard, for which the patriarch paid heavily, a wave of persecution 
invariably took place. 

For some centuries the only approach to the Nestorians from the outer 
Christian world came from Rome; and Roman interests revolved around the 
chief aim of wresting the Catholic profession from him who sat on the 
throne in return for the pallium. Until the dawn of the nineteenth century the 
whole matter ended then, and the Nestorians remained where they had 
been before. The nations of the West were unaware of their very existence. 

1 His line apparently moved from Mosul to Urmia in the seventeenth century and to 
Qudshanis in the eighteenth. 

2 This is a fact hard to explain, and the late Dorn Fcrtcscuc (p. 103) leaves the question 

3 The name ‘Chaldean’ which is ethnic rather than religious was adopted to dodge the 
obvious contradiction in the use of the words ‘Catholic Nestorian’. Chaldxans increased 
steadily, and in 1902 two Nestorian bishops and a group of 20,000 joined the Catholic 
Uniates. Attwatcr (II, 204) estimates the total of the community at 96,000. They also 
suffered great losses in the various massacres. Their head is the patriarch or katholikos of 
Babylon residing at Mosul with ten bishops. He holds a seat ex officio in the Senate of Iraq. 
The Dominicans have been active amongst them since 1882. Chaldaean monasticism was 
reformed and revitalized by Gabriel Dumbo of Mardin, who founded a new order called 
the Antonians of St Hormisdas in 1808. The use of the Syriac liturgy is modified in con¬ 
formity with their Uniate character. The chief contribution of the Catholic order, apart 
from education, is the suppression of the hereditary nature of the patriarchate. 


Then suddenly came the age of re-discovery 1 of their little community as a 
revelation to a bewildered world. The story started with a certain Claude 
James Rich, then Resident of the British East India Company in Baghdad, 
who was not a man of religion but happened to be highly cultured and pos¬ 
sessed of a very keen interest in archeology. He visited the ancient site of 
the Biblical city of Nineveh in 1820, and his report 2 on the area excited all 
manner of circles, both scholarly and missionary, in England and America. 
At long last he revealed to the English-speaking races the astounding facts 
about the Assyrians, who still conversed in a language similar to that spoken 
by Jesus and the Apostles and whose peculiar form of Christianity called 
for study and sympathy. A systematic archaeological exploration was com¬ 
menced by A. EL Layard. 3 On the religious side, however, the Nestorians 
were evidently and traditionally anti-popish and had neither icons nor 
crucifixes in their churches, only a simple and symbolic Cross. Their attitude 
towards the Virgin Mary was much akin to Protestant conceptions. Could 
they be the ancient ‘Protestants of the East’? Hence ensued a deluge of 
missions and Protestant missionaries to those forlorn sons of a historic 
church in their God-forsaken abodes. 

A brief survey of what happened will be of interest. The Rev. Joseph 
Wolff came to Kurdistan in 1820 and afterwards returned to England with a 
manuscript of the Syriac New Testament, which the British and Foreign 
Bible Society published and distributed amongst Nestorians in 1827. 
Hitherto the only copies of the Scripture were confined to the churches and 
the hands of dignitaries, a fact which explains the immense value of this 
initial contribution to the understanding of the Scriptures. Then the Ameri¬ 
can Presbyterian Mission, composed of Messrs. Smith and Davies, arrived 
at Urmia in 1830, to be followed by Rev. Justin Perkins in 1834 and Dr 
Asahel Grant 4 in 1835. Others joined in the field at different dates without 
any enduring impression, such as the Danish Lutherans, 5 the Norwegian 
Lutherans and the Baptists. 

1 Fortescuc, pp. 115 et seq.. Vine, pp. 176 ct seq. 

2 'Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan and on the Site of Ancient Nineveh , 2 vols. (London, 

3 Nineveh and its Remains , 2 vols. (London, 1849). 

4 He is the author of the famous volume The Nestorians, or. The Lost Tribes containing 
evidence of their identity, an account of their manners, custo? 7 is and ceremonies, together with sketches 
of travel in ancient Assyria, Armenia, Media, and Mesopotamia, and illustrations of Scripture 
prophecy (New York, 1841). The appeal of the discovery of the lost tribes of Israel naturally 
fired the imagination of the contemporary. French tr. Henriette Winslow, Les tribus 
perdues (Paris, 1843). 

5 They appear to have worked through a converted Nestorian by the name of Ncstorius 
George Malech in 1893, who translated from Syriac a rather peculiar book written by 
his father, George David Malech of Urmia, entitled History of the Syrian Nation and the Old 
Evangelical- Apostolic Church of the East, from Remote Antiquity to the Present Time (Min¬ 
neapolis, Minn., 1910) with much contradictory material and documents as well as a 


The Russians, too, emerged on the scene as the supreme defenders of the 
whole of Eastern Christendom. As the arch-enemies of the Turks, the Rus¬ 
sians continued to receive successive appeals from the Nestorians throughout 
the nineteenth century in the hope that the tsar might restore their freedom 
from their Ottoman oppressors by force of arms. As early as 1827, whole 
groups of Nestorian families crossed the Russian frontier and joined Russian 
orthodoxy. Towards the close of the century (1898) a Nestorian bishop with 
four priests appeared at St Petersburg and declared, on behalf of their 
nation, readiness to profess obedience to the Russian church in return for 
protection. The Russians responded by the establishment of an Orthodox 
mission centre, a printing press and a church at Urmia, together with forty 
parishes and sixty schools up and down the country. They claimed to have 
won some twenty thousand converts in 1900. Expectations ran high amongst 
the poor Nestorians, who awaited in vain the tsar’s mighty battalions to 
come and deliver them from bondage. But the tsar’s forces were not forth¬ 
coming, and, in disappointment, the orthodox converts relapsed to the old 
obedience. 1 

The truly lasting efforts amongst the Nestorians from the non-Catholic 
West belong primarily to the Presbyterians, who built schools, hospitals 
and welfare centres, and next, to the archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission to 
the Ass} rian Church. It is interesting to note the reaction of the Nestorians to 
these two new forces. Since the Presbyterians served and proselytized in the 
meantime, the Nestorian church looked with some disfavour and appre¬ 
hension upon their activities. In contrast, the Anglican mission followed a 
different line of policy which is best represented by its chief exponent 
among the Nestorians, George Percy Badger, originally a printer who be¬ 
came an ordained minister and chaplain of the East India Company in the 
diocese of Bombay. Previously he had spent the years 1835-36 at Beirut, 
where he acquired a knowledge of Arabic and became familiar with the 
Near East. He was accordingly chosen by Dr William Howley, archbishop of 
Canterbury (1766-1848), and Dr C. J. Blomfield, bishop of London, as 
delegate to the Eastern churches and especially to the Nestorians in Kurdis¬ 
tan for the years 1842-4. He revisited the region in 1850 and completed his 
valuable work on the Nestorians and their ritual. 2 Prom the very outset, 

multitude of personal photographs without any value to the reader. The odd thing about 
N. G. Malech is that he combined with his Danish mission the dignity of archdeacon of 
the Nestorian church and a seat in a patriarchal committee. 

1 Fortcscue, p. 119; Vine, p. 180. 

2 The Nestorians and their Rituals: with a Narrative of a Mission to Mesopotamia and Coordis- 
ian in i 842-1S44, and a Visit to those Countries in i8jo; also , Researches into the Present Con¬ 
dition of the Syrian Jacobites , Papal Syrians , and Chaldeans , and an Inquiry into the Religions 
Tenets of the Ycyedees , 2 vols. (London, 1852). The title of the book explains its chief 
contents. The second volume is devoted to the rituals. Badger’s immediate predecessor 


Badger made it clear to the Nestorian patriarch that Anglicanism, unlike 
Protestant missions, was there simply to help without any ulterior motives 
of proselytism. He had openly assailed the American Board of Foreign 
Missions in Constantinople, whose agents belonged to the Presbyterian, 
Independent, Dutch Reformed and other dissenting bodies, with ‘their 
design to create schism’ amongst the Christians of the East. 1 He equally 
disapproved of Roman tactics which had weakened the church of the East 
by splitting its membership into Uniate Chaldeans and the so-called dissident 
heretics. The English church was only concerned with educational help, the 
protection of a depressed people, and the reform of the old church from 
inside. The Nestorian patriarch was elated by these noble principles, and 
special favour was shown to the Anglicans. Unfortunately their mission led a 
fitful existence after Badger and was not stabilized until the ’eighties. Canon 
Maclean and his two companions, A. Riley and W. H. Browne, resumed 
work amongst the Nestorians in 1886. On account of the increasing influence 
of the Russian mission at Urmia, within the precincts of Persia, it was de¬ 
cided in 1903 to move the headquarters of the Anglican mission to Van, on 
the Turkish side of the frontier, during the tenure of Canon W. A. Wigram, 2 
w'hose labours lasted from 1902 to 1912. The mission continued its good 
work without interruption until the First World War. Even the eloquent 
defence of the Roman Catholic position vis-a-vis the Nestorians by Adrien 
Fortescue 3 did not deter him from wishing ‘the Anglican mission God¬ 
speed in its noble work’, of course with the additional hope that both Angli¬ 
can and Nestorian might ultimately become Roman Catholic in the end. 

The Last Phase 

The political background of the western missionary enterprise amongst the 
Nestorians represents the beginning of the last phase in their pathetic his¬ 
tory. Before the advent of the missionary, the Nestorians had lived a com¬ 
paratively peaceful life with an equally primitive Kurdish neighbour. The 
outward appearance of the Nestorian and the Kurd was almost identical 

after the memorable Wolff expedition was Mr Ainsworth, who also came to make in¬ 
quiries in 1842 under the auspices of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He 
published another 2-vol. work entitled Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, 
Chaldcea and Armenia (London, 1842). 

1 Nestorians and their Rituals, I, 241-55, 267-98; P. E. Shaw, American Contacts with the 
Eastern Churches , 1820-1870 (Chicago, 1937), pp. 95-100. 

2 Author of The Assyrian Church, 100-640 a.d., often quoted in the foregoing pages. 

3 Op. cit., pp. 123-6. 


in spite of the variance in religion, tradition and intimate private life. The 
Nestorian community was organized on a tribal basis under the headship 
of a malik for each tribe in its own village. The patriarch was the supreme 
head of the nation, and all chiefs owed him tacit allegiance in civil and 
religious affairs. Politically both the Muslim and Christian populations were 
subject to the Kurdish amir of the region. The Kurdish amir was accompanied 
by the patriarch on the same bench for mutual deliberations on legal issues 
involving Muslim Kurds and Christian Nestorians. It is extremely difficult 
to estimate the number of the whole community with any precision. The 
figure of 100,00c) 1 2 3 has been mentioned; and if so, the Nestorians must have 
suffered heavy losses in the ensuing massacres by the Turks, Kurds and 
Iraqis, respectively. However, at this moment, Kurdish affinity with the 
Assyrian was frequently described by the Kurds, who stated that only a 
hair separated them from one another, whereas a mountain stretched out 
between them and the Armenians. This does not imply that life in the Hak- 
kiari Mountains was uneventful. Mishaps continuously took place, but on a 
rather limited scale, and the wounds were soon healed by the leaders on both 
sides. In 1830 the Kurds attacked the Nestorians, whereupon representations 
in their favour were tendered by the European consuls to the Sublime Porte. 
The Sultan sent Rashid Pasha to restore order and tranquility in Kurdistan, 
and the Turkish army withdrew in 1834.2 Afterwards, when the Kurdish 
Amir Nur-Allah decided to visit Istanbul in 1840, he entrusted Mar ShinTun 
XVII Oraham with his civic powers and the guardianship of his harem* 
It would appear that the harmony between Kurd and Nestorian was largely 
marred by the circumstances of the emergence of the Western missionary in 
the area with marked sympathies towards the native Christians and a promise 
of help which went beyond education and social welfare to political issues 
against the Muslim. Conscious of his superiority to his neighbour and 

1 Vine, pp. 183-4; Fortescuc, p. 128, quotes three estimates from various sources, the 
highest by Silbernagl as 150,000, the lowest by Herzog and Hauck as 70,000 and a middle 
one at 100,000 by Cuinct (La Turquie d’Asie [Paris, 1892], II, 650), which is appar¬ 
ently acceptable to him. Cuinct puts the 19th-century distribution of Nestorians as 
10,000 in Persia and 90,000 in 'Turkey, of whom 40,000 arc ray abas or Raya (the Arabic 
Raiyab , or citizens) in the cities and 50,000 r ashirah (Arabic for tribe) Nestorians or tribal 
population in the mountain. This total number is accepted by D. Attwater, Tbe Christian 
Churches of the Last , II, 189-92. Owing to proselytization, massacres and steady emigra¬ 
tion, their numbers have been considerably reduced in the Middle East. Attwater (II, 194) 
underlines the factor of reunion with Rome and gives one example of four members of 
the clergy with 200 Nestorians going over to Catholicism in 1923 at Homs. 

2 Vine, pp. 187-9. 

3 P. Rondot, Les chretiens d y Orient (Paris, 1955), pp. 161-2; sec also ch. V, ‘Christianity 
in Asia: Syrian and Assyrian’, as part of a contribution by the author of these pages to a 
forthcoming publication on ‘Modernism in the Arab World’, a project subsidized by the 
Rockefeller Foundation under the general editorship of Prof. S. Ghorbal whose death 
later seems to have placed the publication in suspense. 

284 • the nestorians in modern times 

becoming more aware of the glorious past of his church, the still immature 
Nestorian began to cherish a wider measure of enfranchisement from both 
Turk and Kurd and even entertained hopes of independence. The Kurd was 
therefore irritated and began to react by a sho w of hostility more than ever 
before, and the Turks were invariably on the Muslim side unless checked by 
foreign interference in Constantinople. 

In reality, the first serious outbreak between Kurd and Nestorian oc¬ 
curred in the year 1843, when the hill tribes descended on the unsuspecting 
Christian villages under the generalship of a bigoted chief by the name of 
Badr-Khan of Bohtan, who aspired to assert his feudal lordship over all 
Kurdistan. The revolt, initially directed against Turkish rule, was soon de¬ 
flected to a ferocious onslaught to exterminate the Nestorians as a first 
measure of unification and uniformity in Kurdistan. So poisoned was the 
whole atmosphere that even tolerant personalities like the aforementioned 
Nur-Allah inevitably joined the movement. Both Grant 1 and Badger 2 were 
around at the time, and Badger gave refuge to the patriarch, whose life he had 
saved. The horrors of the ensuing massacre have been described as the worst 
since the ravages of Timur Lane. Only the firm representations of the British 
government persuaded the sultan to despatch the pasha of Mosul at the head 
of an army to save the depleted numbers of the Nestorians from gradual 
extermination. It is said that the loss of life amounted to twenty thousand 
souls, including some Chaldasans. Several other thousands fled from Turkey 
to Russia in the Caucasus. Meanwhile, the Nestorian patriarch took to the 
habit of appealing to the Powers for protection. There appeared to be no 
way to bridge the gap which kept widening between Kurd and Nestorian. 

The final tragedy of the Assyrians was precipitated by the circumstances 
of the First World War (1914-18) and its tragic aftermath. Having thus 
fallen out with their Kurdish neighbours beyond any repair, the harrassed 
Nestorians decided to descend from their Hakkiari Mountain retreat to the 
lower plains of Mosul and to join the Allies against Turkey in the hope that 
thereby they might earn independence. Thus forty thousand of them dis¬ 
carded their old homes wholesale and their ‘levies’ volunteered to serve in the 
Dunsterforce with the British and the Russians. The hardships inflicted upon 
them in the rugged mountain paths must have equalled or even exceeded the 
Hakkiari massacres. The mortality especially amongst women and children 
was very high. The details of the complete picture are not yet entirely re¬ 
vealed, but they are in some way reminiscent of the exodus of the Jews from 
ancient Egypt through the Tlh Desert in Sinai, and of the Mormon trail 
from Nauvoo to the western frontier wastelands in 1846. During centuries of 
segregation from the rest of the outside world, the Nestorian outlook was 

1 The Missionary Herald , XXXIX (1843), 435 ct scq. 

2 Nestorians and their Rituals , I, 256 ct scq. 


reduced to such limitation that they became incapable of coping with and 
integrating into the new order of Arab nationalism which had just broken 
away from the fetters of Turkish imperialism. Vain dreams loomed in their 
simple imagination of raising their tiny nation to the rank of independent 
statehood in the plains of Mosul. In the fulness of hope for the revival of the 
old Assyrian nationality, they embarked on a suicidal career. In 1917 they 
lost their supreme leader, the Patriarch Mar Shirrfun, XX Benyamin, 1 who 
was assassinated by a fanatic Kurd on the Persian frontier. His successor 
Mar Eshai XXI ShinTun, was only a child of thirteen who had to complete 
his studies at St Augustine’s in Canterbury as a ward of the archbishop there. 
His patriarchal prerogative devolved on his older sister with her imperfect 
education at a minor missionary college, and with no means of effective 
communication with the tribal traditions of her nation. When the army ievies 
were disbanded after the peace of Versailles, the derelict Nestorians vir¬ 
tually became homeless refugees on the banks of the upper Tigris and Euph¬ 
rates Rivers under the British mandate in Iraq. Meanwhile, the ill feeling of 
the native Muslim towards the Christian was intensified by a series of un¬ 
toward incidents in which the levies were involved. The fact that Britain 
was willing to help them in the League of Nations did not improve their 
relations with their Iraqi neighbours. At one moment, it was suggested that 
they might be removed as a whole to Canada, 2 but they preferred if possible 
to attain independence in their old homeland. With the end of the British 
mandate in 1933, and the return of the young patriarch from school in 
England, the sordid story of Nestorian strife was resumed with little or no 
respite. Mar ShinTun at once attempted to assume his ancestral quasi-tribal 
authority, both ecclesiastical and temporal, oblivious of the changes that 
had taken place in the new state of Iraq. The Nestorians apparently still lived 
in bygone days and refused to make any attempt towards integration in the 
general pattern of the new Iraqi nation. Their failure to cope with the situa¬ 
tion ended in catastrophe. 

When the Iraqi Minister of the Interior summoned the patriarch to Bagh¬ 
dad in the course of 1933 and requested him to renounce the practice of civil 
authority and of acting as a state within the state, he refused and was 

1 He was only twenty-seven at the time of his assassination, and it is interesting to note 
that he was only seventeen at his accession to the patriarchal throne. 

2 Other projects for settling them in other countries were advanced. Brazil was willing 
to accept 20,000. Cyprus, French Sudan and British Guiana were also mentioned for 
partial settlement of their numbers. The French mandatory authorities in Syria agreed to 
accept 10,000 to be placed in the Ghab district in the upper valley of Nahr al-Kalb (the 
Orontes), provided the expense was met by contributions from Britain, Iraq and the 
League of Nations. This and all the other attempts came to nought, except for a few 
thousand Nestorians who somehow succeeded in finding their way inside the Syrian 
frontier and camped out in the district of Dair al-Zor in the valley of the Khabur River 
(Attwatcr, II, 191-2). 


detained virtually as a prisoner in the capital. The Assyrian chiefs met at Mosul 
and issued a severe protest against the government actions. The central 
administration responded by the issue of an ultimatum offering them the 
choice of abiding by the law of the land or freedom to depart from the 
country. One thousand armed men accepted the challenge and chose to cross 
the Euphrates into Syria in the summer of 1933. To their bitter disappoint¬ 
ment, their entry was refused by the French in Syria, and they had to retrace 
their way to Iraq. A stray shot was fired on their arrival, and suddenly the 
armed forces of Iraq attacked the disorderly Assyrian refugees. Kurds and 
Bedouins joined the fray, which amounted to a general massacre. Moreover, 
many of the survivors were seized as rebels and shot in cold blood. The 
government indicted Mar Shitrfum for the revolt and withdrew Iraqi citizen¬ 
ship from him by special act of parliament, whereupon he was deported to 
Cyprus. The tragedy extended to other Assyrians whose fate became an 
international scandal. From Cyprus the unhappy patriarch went to the United 
States of America, where he was invited by a relatively large colony of 
Assyrian emigrants to Chicago in 1940. In spite of the fact that he had become 
an American citizen, he rendered a state visit to the embassy of Iraq in 
Washington in 1948 to submit his loyal homage to the old home authority 
in the hope of repatriation, but without any positive response. The depleted 
number of the Nestorians in the Middle East is currentlv estimated at 


30,000 of whom about 8,000 have succeeded in crossing the Syrian frontier 
and reside in the Khabur Valley. The rest live around Ba gh dad and Mosul, 
shepherded by one metropolitan and a single bishop. 

The fate of the Nestorians has been hard and pitiful. Their hopeless plight 
has been depicted from within by Syriac writers such as Abraham Yuhannan, 
whose story of Nestorian persecutions, already mentioned, is entitled The 
Death of a Nation . 1 Another significant book on their contemporary history 
by a younger Nestorian is The Last Phase of Nestorian History . 2 Whether this 
implies the end or the beginning of the end of Nestorianism remains yet 
to be seen. Although it is hard for the historian to issue a clear verdict in a 
case whose facts are not fully made public, a few remarks may help to eluci¬ 
date some facets of a baffling position. Perhaps the root of the whole problem 
lay in the inability of the Nestorian to cope with the emergence of a new set 
of overpowering circumstances which tended to crush his very existence. 
Nestorian society had become petrified in its formalism, tribalism and narrow 
nationalism. It stubbornly refrained from lending itself to the inevitable 
process of minority integration in the formative years of the Iraqi nation. It 

1 Published in 1916 by Putnam of London and New York, even before the tragedy of 
the Nestorians reached its consummation in more recent years. 

2 Dissertation for which he obtained the degree of doctor of philosophy from Princeton 
University in 1957. 


lacked the sagacity of wise leadership which seemed to be the only hope for 
steering a helpless little community to a haven of peace amidst tempestuous 
times and merciless events outside its control. In the first instance, it was 
hasty and foolish of the old patriarch to drag his people from their tradi¬ 
tional homestead into the unknown on a wild goose chase for indepen¬ 
dence. It was equally wrong to discourage the integration of his tribes into 
the greater body politic of the Iraqi people, irrespective of religious or ethnic 
differences. To fan the flame of separatism and disaffection was criminal and 
insane. With all the goodwill and sympathy which the English people 
harboured for the Nestorians, the political creed of the state in England has 
always been to avoid the estrangement of a majority, in the defence of 
minority interests, however just these might be. Thus the patriarch had to 
pay the price of his folly. This by no means justifies the Nestorian massacres. 
At best, religious persecutions are sordid and utterly objectionable. No 
modern society can tolerate them over the years. On the other hand, it must 
be noted that Assyrian opinion itself has been sorely divided about the 
position and personality of the Nestorian patriarch. One Nestorian writer has 
overtly accused him of disloyalty to his people, irresponsibility, anarchism, 
opportunism and solid incompetence in qualities which undeservedly ren¬ 
dered the Assyrians unpopular in the countries of the Middle East. 1 In the 
United States, a new party of independent Assyrians has been launched at 
Chicago under the name of the American Assyrian Apostolic Church. The 
group is led by a relative of the present patriarch named the Reverend Sadok 
Mar ShinYun. Whether this is the beginning of a fresh schism in the shrink¬ 
ing ancient ‘Church of the East’, now in exile, depends largely on the pro¬ 
gress of that movement amidst the American Nestorian congregations 2 
and on the reaction of their fellow co-religionists in Iraq, Syria and else¬ 
where. Whatever the outcome of this fresh internal crisis may be, the Nes¬ 
torian church will remain in exile a living symbol of a glorious career in the 
chequered history of Christianity in the East. Although those who owe it 
obedience have been reduced nowadays to an almost insignificant minority, 
few churches can claim for themselves the Nestorian evangelizing fire that 
swept all over the continent of Asia in the earlier Middle Ages. The splinter¬ 
ing of the meagre residue of their one-time prosperous nation, even after 
the inroads of Protestantism, has left behind it three offshoots still existing to 
this day. The first is the Chaldxan church composed of Uniates who went to 
Rome but preserved the bulk of the original Syriac ritual. The second is the 

1 Quotation by Rondot, p. 169, from a publication of the ‘Assyrian Liberation Com¬ 
mittee in Syria’. 

2 These include one cathedral in Chicago and seven churches at Gary (Ind.), Flint 
(Mich.), Yonkers (N.Y.), New Brittain (Conn.), Philadelphia (Pa), Turlock (Calif.), and 
San Francisco (Calif.). See Orthodoxy , VI (1954), 271. Nestorians in the U.S.A. arc said 
to be 25,000 (Attwater, II, 193). 


Malabarese church of South India, which had become Jacobite long before 
the planting of Catholicism in the subcontinent by the Portuguese and the 
rise of the reformed Mar Thoma branch in later times. The third is the 
Mellusian‘Church of Trichur 5 , consisting of a small body of Nestorians in the 
state of Cochin. The founder of the last sect was a certain Elias Melius, 1 who 
apparently quarrelled with both Uniates and Jacobites in 1876 and thus 
decided to resuscitate the original Nestorian church in India. His party 
survived his decease until the Nestorian catholicos at Qudashanis in the 
course of 1907 ordained a Nestorian Archdeacon Abimelech as Bishop Mar 
Timotheus of South India and commissioned him to shepherd the Nestorian 
Indians, approximately 8,000 in number. The head of this symbolic minority 
styles himself Metropolitan of Malabar and the Indies. 2 

1 Originally a native of Mardin, Turkey, by the name of Hanna (John), who became a 
Chaldcean priest under Patriarch Joseph Audo in 1864 before going to Malabar. Pie wrote 
an Arabic ‘History of the Oriental Chaldaean Church’, G. Graf, Gesch. d. christlichen 
arabischen lit., IV, 112-13. 

2 Ibid., pp. 371-2; Attwater, II, 197-8. 


The Hierarchy 

The questions of the Nestorian hierarchy and the ecclesiastical organization 
and administration of the church and community have inevitably been 
raised on various occasions in the course of the foregoing pages in the 
attempt to outline their general history across the centuries. The evolution of 
the hierarchical principles of the Nestorians has varied from age to age, and 
it would therefore be wrong to generalize in applying the same criteria 
throughout. Here it is planned to make a brief survey of clerical structure 
together with those traits and characteristics which have distinguished the 
Nestorians as a particular Christian sect in the last phase of their long story. 

In common with all Christian churches, the Nestorian Church is headed 
by a patriarch or catholicos; but unlike them, the patriarch was vested with 
both spiritual and temporal authority over his people under Turkish rule. 
Whereas the Ottoman millet system within the Turkish empire gave pat¬ 
riarchs a measure of independence in handling the personal affairs of their 
communities, such as marriage, divorce and the like, while reserving the 
civil and criminal cases to the secular authority, it appears in the case of the 
Nestorians that all came under the tacit jurisdiction of the patriarch. He was 
generally called rats, or supreme chief of his community; and under him, 
each tribe had its leader or malik, which literally stood for ‘king’ in Arabic 
and Syriac, though without the current meaning of the word. The principles 
of local government amidst the Nestorians were intensified by the circum¬ 
stance of their dwelling in the seclusion of mountain fastnesses where com¬ 
munication with a central authority was exceptionally difficult. The exercise 
of a combined supreme jurisdiction over the tribal malik by the patriarch 
was retained at least in theory until the era of exile. In America, this preroga¬ 
tive has spontaneously come to an end. 

Another special feature is the hereditary nature of the patriarchate from 
uncle to nephew, one which in modern history extended to the metropoli¬ 
tans and bishops. The patriarch’s title is ‘The Reverend and Honoured Father 
of Fathers and Great Shepherd, Mar Shinfun, Patriarch and Catholicos 



of the East.’ In fact, the name Mar Shiirfun with the Nestorians, like Mar 
Ignatius with the Jacobites, has become almost a distinctive title rather 
than a personal name. Sometimes a young child succeeded to the patriarchal 
throne by hereditary rights, and the affairs of state were conducted by his 
mother or his older sister during his infancy, with disastrous consequences 
to the community. A free election occurred only when the rightful family 
branch became extinct. On his accession, the patriarch was enthroned and 
consecrated by the chief metropolitan in the presence of the bishops with 
much pomp and ceremony. 

The chief metropolitan emulated the same principles as his superior. He 
bore the name, or rather title, of Mar Hananyeshu f (Mercy of Jesus) just the 
same as the patriarch was called Mar ShinTun. He, too, transmitted the 
dignity of his high ecclesiastical office to another member of his own family. 
In reality, the episcopal thrones as a whole became hereditary within the 
narrow lines of certain families. But the tradition of celibacy was generally 
observed by all higher dignitaries, although the records point to the exis¬ 
tence of married bishops. Abstention from meat was promoted among higher 
clerics, and the historic tradition of the Nestorian hierarchy leaned towards 
austerity, though this has increasingly become a matter of personal tem¬ 
perament. In the last phase of Nestorian history in the Middle East, mention 
is made of seven bishops some of whom held only titular sees, besides the 
patriarch and the metropolitan, or mutran. 

The lower clergy, as in all the other Eastern churches, are married. Unlike 
these other churches, however, the Nestorian Church approves of unlimited 
re-marriage of priests on the death of former wives. Those who take a 
monastic vow can obtain a dispensation to secede from monasticism without 
disgrace or difficulty. A priest is usually selected by his future parishioners, 
then confirmed and ordained by the bishop by the laying on of hands. The 
archpriest in the city and the chorepiscopos in charge of several parishes in the 
country have identical functions, and both exercise numerous episcopal 
duties in the absence of a bishop. The archdeacon is a kind of vicar-general 
in charge of diocesan finances and the landed property of the church. 
Usually each parish has several deacons, readers and clerks proportionate to 
its size and needs. From office to office, the Nestorians appear to have prac¬ 
tised re-ordination. It is hard to know how much of all this still remains in 
the ranks of the exiled Nestorian Church, which is undergoing a steady pro¬ 
cess of adaptation to a new and strange environment in the New World. 1 

1 Fortcscue, pp. 126-37; Vine, pp. 183-5; Attwater, II, 192-4. 


Monasticism 1 

The glory of the Nestorian church in medieval times must necessarily be 
associated with the growth of its monastic order. The unknown heroes who 
carried the Gospel across Asia under the auspices of the Church of the East 
were self-denying members of the many Nestorian monasteries in Persia and 
upper Mesopotamia. The origin of monasticism among the Nestorians, or 
perhaps even more generally amongst the Syrians, is ascribed by tradition to 
Mar Augin, 2 a fourth-century pearl fisherman in the Red Sea at the ancient 
city of Clysma. 3 Legend clothes him in a garb of sanctity even before he 
decided to retire from the world to a Pachomian monastery, probably in the 
Thebaid, and later to the wilderness of Scetis in the Nitrean valley. Evidently 
therefore, we must assume that he became a disciple of St Pachomius and 
that he transplanted his rule of cenobitic life to Persia and Syria around the 
middle of the century. It is said that he finally settled down in one of the 
upper valleys of Mesopotamia north of Nisibis with seventy companions, 
and that soon afterwards his followers numbered 350 monks from the entire 
Middle East. 4 Towards the end of his life he retired to Mount Izala, since 
famous for its Nestorian monastery, after blessing his original seventy 
companions who also discarded their abodes to found seventy other monas¬ 
teries elsewhere. Thus Nestorian monasticism had its legendary beginning. 
It must, however, be remembered that at this stage monasteries were equally 
shared by eastern and western Syrians and that there was at first no distinction 
between monophysite and Nestorian foundations. Then, towards the end 
of the fifth century, as the Church was torn with factions and Nestorians 
became concentrated in Persia, monastic life suffered decline which may be 
demonstrated by the decisions of Bar Sauma in the Synod of Beth Lapat or 
Laphat (484), where celibacy was disfavoured even among monks and nuns - a 
very curious and paradoxical inconsistency. One author, quoting Thomas of 
Marga, gives the picture of a monastic settlement as a village in the moun¬ 
tain where monks and nuns lived together and raised families with children. 5 

A true reform in monastic life in Persia came at the hands of Abraham of 
Kashkar (al-WasIt), 6 who inaugurated a new era in the history of the move¬ 
ment. Born in 491 or 492 at Kashkar in lower Mesopotamia, he died in 586 
at the advanced age of ninety-five years, hie thus lived in the era of Nes¬ 
torian reform and was a contemporary of its great Patriarch Mar Aba. Like 

1 The use of the word ‘Nestorian’ in connection with monasticism amongst the East 
Syrians is a matter of convenience rather than chronological accuracy, since the monastic 
rule in the area is much older than both the Council of Ephesus and the age of Nestorius. 

2 Also Awgin, or Eugenius. 

3 The Arabic al-Qulzum of mediaeval times and the modern Suez. 

4 Labourt, pp. 302-15. 5 Adeney, pp. 487-9. 

6 Labourt, pp. 315-21; Wigram, pp. 233-4. 


him, he was a graduate of the School of Nisibis and studied under his name¬ 
sake Abraham, an enlightened doctor and nephew of the outstanding Nes- 
torian theologian Nerses. After spending some time in religious service in the 
region of Hira on the eastern edge of Arabia, he went to Egypt, where he 
spent many years amidst the Coptic monks of the Scetis wilderness in the 
Nitrean Valley. Here he studied closely the rule of St Macarius the Great, a 
contemporary of St Pachomius. Then he visited Sinai, which teemed with 
recluses, and in all probability went to its Monastery of the Transfiguration 
(later St Catherine), only recently founded by Justinian in 525. He also 
undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre before retiring 
to Mount Izala, where he introduced the rule of the Coptic monks among 
his native countrymen. His piety, good example and asceticism drew around 
him crowds of eminent monks and earned for him the title of Abraham the 
Great’. He was succeeded by able and saintly men who watched over the 
discipline of monastic life according to the rule of their master. His rule was 
enforced in his monastery in 571 and was strengthened by his immediate 
successor in 5 88. 1 Abraham had in his own lifetime designated his successor, 
who also was a saintly man and one of the prominent personalities of his 
time. This was Mar Dadishu , who governed the community until nearly 
620, or within a few decades of the Muslim Conquest. He was followed by 
another noted monk, Babai the Great, who ruled until 628. Eighty works are 
attributed to him, of which the most important is the treatise On Onion em¬ 
bodying in systematic form Nestorian theology on the relation between the 
divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. 2 The observance of celibacy became 
strict after his time. Though slightly modified, Abraham’s rule was built on 
the model of the Coptic cenobitic traditions. Celibacy, chastity, poverty, 
fasting, silence, prayer, manual labour and study were essential conditions in 
Abraham’s rule. At first the brothers prayed seven times a day, but later 
these were reduced to four. Meat and wine were forbidden, and they ate 
bread and vegetables at midday. Their dress consisted of a tunic, belt, cloak, 
hood and sandals; and they carried a Cross and a staff. After three \ ears of 
cenobitic life, a monk had the right to retire to a solitary contemplative 
existence in the mountain. To distinguish themselves from their Jacobite 
neighbours, Nestorian monks wore a cruciform tonsure. Each monastery 
had an abbot, but he was subject to the local bishop who administered all 
monastic property. The strict obedience of monks to ecclesiastical authority 
provided the hierarchy with a powerful army of devotees who strengthened 
the Church and fearlessly penetrated the vast Asiatic continent in an attempt 
at large-scale evangelization. Even after the coming of the Arab, the monas¬ 
teries remained the chief solace of the church for survival and sustained ex- 

1 Chabot published fragments of his Rule in Rome, 1898; Chabot, 'L.itterature Syriaque , 
p. 5 2 p u b > b y a. Vaschalde (Paris, 1915); cf. Chabot, Litferat/<re, pp. 60-1. 


pansion. 1 The number of monastic foundations increased in the sixth and 
seventh centuries. Mount Izala near Nisibis and Dorkena near Seleucis, 
where the Nestorian patriarchs had been buried for centuries, became the 
leading monastic centres. Other establishments of importance were at Tela, 
Baxaja, Haigla, Henda, Zarnucha, Camula, Anbar, Beth Zabda, Chuchta and 
Kuph. 2 

The Arab period was not devoid of monks who rose to fame. The best- 
known example is perhaps Thomas of Marga, the Nestorian historian 3 
who entered the Monastery of Beth ’Abhe to the east of Mosul in the year 
832. Later he became secretary and pupil to Patriarch Abraham (837-50), 
who eventually made him bishop of Marga, then metropolitan of Beth 
Garmai to the north of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. He wrote a Book of Governors , 4 
the history of his own monastery in which he incorporated a considerable 
mass of biographies of monks and material drawn from earlier monastic 
literature. The Book of Governors in the story of Nestorian monasticism be¬ 
came the equivalent of the La/tsiac History 5 by Palladius in regard to the 
lives of the Egyptian fathers. 

The annals of Nestorian monasticism, however, were not completely 
free from curious and rather degraded offshoots. The best-known example 
is the sect of the Msalleiani (Arabic=al-Musallln, or ‘praying men’), who 
became a source of trouble to the church and the nation for several centuries. 
Wigram 6 describes them as ‘Christian Fakirs’ and compares them to the 
later dervishes in Islam. We first hear of them in the middle of the fourth 
century, and they are known to have persisted at least until the twelfth. 
They were mendicant friars without affiliation to a monastery or an order. 
They held that the demon was innate in man, and only incessant prayer 
could drive him out of the body. With the departure of the evil spirit from a 
person, the Holy Ghost takes its place, giving rise to beatific visions and 
freedom from sin, accompanied by supernatural powers. Those who at¬ 
tained that stage became indifferent and invulnerable to church authority. 
Sometimes they were harmless mystics, but occasionally they proved to be 
a public nuisance and even committed unthinkable moral crimes under the 
cover of religion. From an early period Flavian of Antioch (ca. 449) exposed 
them and succeeded in banning them by synodal decision from western 
Syria. In the East, however, despite a sixth-century declaration by Patriarch 
IshiTyahb I (582-96) that the church recognized no monk without a 

1 Labourt, pp. 321-4; Fortescue, p. 112; Wigram, pp. 233-5. 

2 Vine, p. 75. 

3 W. Wright, A Short History of Syriac 'Literature (London, 1901), pp. 219 et seq.; 
A. Baumstark, Gesch. d. Syr. Lit., pp. 233 et seq. 

4 Syriac text and English tr. E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of Governors , 2 vols. (London, 

5 See above. 

6 Assyrian Church , p. 236. 


monastery, the members of this scandalous sect continued to rove among 
the Nestorians for several centuries afterwards. 1 

Concrete data on the monastic history of the Nestorians after Thomas of 
Marga’s ninth-century chronicle become increasingly scarce, and it is diffi¬ 
cult to paint an articulate picture of that great institution in later centuries. 
Nevertheless, judging by the achievement of Nestorian monks in Central 
Asia and China, the movement must have long persisted in strength and 
activity. Archaeological discoveries and modern studies of the early attempts 
to establish the Nestorian mission throughout Asia prove this beyond a 
shadow of doubt to have been one of the brightest in the general history of 
Christianity. In fact, we must remember that the Nestorian church and its 
monastic order kept flourishing at least during the early centuries of the 
Abbasid caliphate and until the Mongol scourge loomed on the horizon and 
extinguished the flame of faith which those Christians carried to the heart 
of China. With Timur Lane’s devastating conquests in the fourteenth cen¬ 
tury, the greatness of the Nestorian church becomes a thing of the past. 
Throughout modern history their monasteries have always been in ruins; 
and the monastic rule of the Nestorians has been reduced to an individual 
vow of celibacy by monks and nuns at home. The depleted church hierarchy 
still consists in principle of sworn celibates. But their scattered ranks are 
only a faint voice resounding faintly from ancient glories. 

Rites and Liturgy 

The Nestorians have proved to be very conservative in matters of faith, if 
not in the organization of the hierarchy. They accept the Nicasan Creed; but 
since Ephesus in 431, they have held fast to their own conceptions about the 
two natures of Christ and the theotokos. Unlike the Latins and like the Copts, 
the Nestorians have avoided the filioque in the Creed, as they considered the 
idea of the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father as well as the Son 

1 The Msalliani or Messaliani were sometimes identified as Euchites or Euphemites 
who once disturbed the Monastery of Beth Abhe. They are also called Marcianites and 
Lampetians, so called after two of their leaders by the name of Marcian and Lampetus. 
A. Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and Church , English tr. J. Torrey, 
9 vols. (London, 1851), HI, p. 341, calls them ‘the first mendicant friars’. In the later 
Middle Ages they appear to have mingled with the Bogomiles in the Balkans and even 
reappeared among the monks of Mt Athos. Adcney (pp. 49 0—2 )> rejecting somewhat the 
charge of immorality against them, tends to regard them as simple pietists, in some way 
allied to Puritanism and anticipating Quakerism. A special study of this subject with 
exhaustive references has been made by A. Voobus, Hes Alessalhens et les reformes de 
Barfauma de Nisibe dans Tegliseperse , Contributions of Baltic University No. 34 (Pinneberg, 

1947 )- 


to be an innovation. On the other hand, the Nestorians, though holding the 
Virgin Mary and the Cross in great reverence, object to the use of the words 
"Mother of God’ and refrain from installing the Crucifix in their churches. 
Icons and images have no place in either the church or the home of a 
Nestorian, who nevertheless treasures saints’ relics. 1 Avoidance of pictures, 
which they had in common with some Protestants, made the latter believe 
at first sight that Protestants were the "Nestorians of the West’ and that the 
Nestorians were the "Protestants of the East’ long before Martin Luther. 
Nevertheless, the Nestorians are highly liturgical in their services, and they 
appear to have developed their own liturgy from a relatively early date, first 
in Edessa, then in Persia, with a small measure of Antiochene features. 
Though Nestorian liturgiology is still far from being developed as a study, 
one cannot help being impressed by the liturgy’s deep spirituality and primi¬ 
tive character. 

The Church of the East uses three liturgies. The first is that of Theodore 
the Interpreter, from Advent to Holy Saturday; the second is that of Nes- 
torius, used on the occasions of the Epiphany, the Memorial of the Greek 
Doctors, the Wednesday of the Ninevites and Maundy Thursday; the third 
and final one is that of the Apostles Mar Addai (St Thaddxus) and Mar 
Mari, who presumably brought it with them from Jerusalem, where St 
James the Less celebrated the first Christian offices (Qurbana) in history. 
This last, used from Easter to Advent, remains the chief liturgy of the 
Nestorians and to the present day is kept in the old Edessene Syriac dialect 
stemming from Aramaic. The Nestorian liturgy is regarded as perhaps the 
most interesting feature or survival in that Church. This is not solely on 
account of the antiquity of its origins, but also because the Nestorians in 
their seclusion retained its primitive form without being exposed to the 
scholarly tampering of theorizing theologians. Its constituent elements do 
not betray the finally developed shape of the later Latin or Greek liturgies. 
Practically every occasion has a special office. While praying for the dead, 
they reject purgatory. They anathematize St Cyril the Great of Alexandria 
but sanctify the memory of Nestorius. Nestorians meet for prayer in the 
early morning and towards nightfall at the tapping of the se man trow, but they 
are sparing with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which is regarded as a 
very special function, not necessarily associated with each Sunday liturgy. 
Whenever Holy Communion is offered, participants therein must fast from 
the previous midnight, while the celebrant and the deacon should start 
prayers on the eve of the appointed day and continue in the following morn¬ 
ing until the afternoon for receiving the sacrament. Confession is not 
generally a requirement for participation in that solemn occasion. The 
‘holy leaven’, regarded as one of the seven sacraments, is held to be literally 

1 Fortcscuc, p. 137, ascribes the absence of icons to Muslim influence. 


in continuity of the Last Supper. The service of the Holy Eucharist begins 
with the elaborate process of making the holy bread in a special area opening 
into the nave within the church structure. 

The Nestorians appear to recognize seven sacraments, 1 though they do not 
seem to be absolutely clear or stable about their nature. Baptism, marriage, 
the Holy Eucharist and holy orders are universally accepted. As to the re¬ 
maining three sacraments, clerics seem to oscillate between various opinions 
which include the blessing of monks, the office for the dead, the oil of 
unction, absolution, the holy leaven, the sign of the Cross and the consecra¬ 
tion of a church or altar. 

Baptism is an important function with the Nestorians and is usually 
performed in stages. At birth the child is washed with water blessed by the 
priest in prayer. Then on the occasion of a great feast, baptism is carried 
out for the children of the community in an elaborate service. The Nestorian 
practices the threefold immersion with the child facing east, and this is 
followed by total anointing with holy oil. 

Baptism and marriage services are also elaborate and are accompanied by 
much rejoicing. Cup, ring, cross, sacred relics, and coronation with colours 
are all used in the solemnization of matrimony. 2 However, divorce is per¬ 
missible on numerous grounds. There are special services for ordination, for 
burial of priests, for burial of laymen, and for consecration of churches. 

In regard to their calendar, the tradition is the use of the old style of the 
Julian reckoning for months, and the Era of the Greeks (i.e., the Seleucids) 
for years starting from 311 b.c. The ecclesiastical year begins on the first of 
December and is divided into nine periods of approximately seven weeks 
each, designated for the Annunciation, Epiphany, Lent, Resurrection, the 
Apostles, the summer, Elijah, Moses, and church dedication. They have 
four fasts of varying lengths: the longest lasts forty-nine days before Easter 
and is called the Great Fast; the shortest. Mart Maryam (Holy Mary), is 
only fifteen days in August; Wednesdays and Fridays are kept as fasting days 
throughout the year. 3 The total of fast days in the year has been reckoned 
at 172. 

1 According to Badger (II, 150), the seven sacraments are: (1) Orders, (2) Baptism, (3) 
Oil of Unction, (4) Oblation of Body and Blood of Christ, (5) Absolution, (6) Holy 
leaven, (7) Sign of the Cross. But Patriarch Timothy II (1318-60), according to Assemani 
(Bibl. Orient ., Ill, 1, 356 and III, 2, 240) gave the sacraments as follows: (1) Holy Orders, 
(2) Consecration of Church and Altar, (3) Baptism and Confirmation with Holy Oil, 
(4) Holy Sacrament of Body and Blood, (5) Blessing of Monks, (6) Office for Dead, 
(7) Marriage. Cf. Fortescue, p. 138. 

2 The whole service, rendered into English, appears in Badger, II, pp. 244-81. See also 
Brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western , pp. 246 ff. For a comprehensive review of 
Nestorian liturgies, see A. J. Maclean, East Syrian Daily Offices , tr. from Syriac with 
Introduction, Notes etc. (London, 1894). 

3 Fortescue, pp. 147-9. 


Ecclesiastical vestments of officiating Nestorian clergy are similar to those 
used by their Jacobite neighbours. These include the tunic ( Quthina ), stole 
( Urara ), girdle ( Zunara ), chasuble (Mapra) without hood, and embroidered 
shoes. Bishops wear a small hood or embroidered amice ( Biruna ) over the 
head and carry the pastoral staff and cross. Outside the church, the clergy 
wear an ordinary, black turban, and of course all are bearded. 1 

Art and Architecture 

If we go far back into the antiquity of Syrian Christianity, it will be difficult 
to distinguish what is Eastern from what is Western in its early culture. The 
saints of both East and West were the same and the theology identical. This 
applies to the spheres of art and architecture as well, and the foregoing re¬ 
marks on the pre-Jacobite Church of Antioch may, in large measure, be 
taken to denote the nature of pre-Nestorian motifs. With the segregation of 
theNestorians, the Church of the East Syrians began to look towards the East. 
In its greater days of expansion, the church expended its creative energy in 
fields other than art and architecture, where it tended towards practical 
simplicity. Later, as the church suffered from the Mongol invasions and the 
rise of the Turkish empire, it was impoverished and began to sink into 
oblivion and ignorance. These circumstances naturally had an impact on the 
art and architecture of the Nestorians. They had virtually no art comparable 
in any way to that of the Greeks or even that of the West Syrians. Besides 
their poverty and lack of artistic knowledge or interest, the Nestorians 
repudiated the use of icons and iconography. A Nestorian never tolerated 
an icon either in church or at home. They used simple crosses at the entrance 
of a church and over the altar, but they banned the crucifix from all parts of 
their religious buildings. Thus neither art nor sculpture was fostered by them, 
and their churches remained bare. 

In architecture, Nestorian churches were also altogether unostentatious 
and invariably poor. As buildings they were recognizable from others only 
by the shape of a simple cross on the outer wall above the church entrance. 
That entrance was a mere aperture in the wall, quite narrow and very low so 
that anybody entering had to stoop down to gain access to the interior. As 
a rule its height was approximately three feet, and it has been suggested that 
the reason was to prevent the wild Kurd from housing his cattle in the 
Syrian place of worship. 2 Those familiar with the churches and monasteries 
in non-Christian countries of the East know of course that this was 

1 H. J. Sutcliffe, ‘The Church of the East’, in Orthodoxy , VI-8, 264-9; Eortcscue, p. 151. 

2 Fortcscue, p. 145. 


deliberately done for reasons of defence to prevent hostile horsemen from 
storming the building. In the case of the old patriarchal church at Qudshanis, 
the entrance was reached by a ladder from outside, thus making access even 
harder. This led to a narthex or open court, partly covered, where the faithful 
left their shoes behind, though retaining their head gear in Oriental fashion 
as they went into the church itself. On excessively hot days the services were 
held in the court instead of in the church interior, which consisted of a sanc¬ 
tuary and a nave separated by a wall taking the place of the iconostasis but 
without icons. A large open doorway with a screen connected both parts. 
Outside the sanctuary there was a raised platform enclosed within a low 
wall for the choir and a lectern for the reading of the lesson as well as a 
table for Scriptural books and a simple Cross. The sanctuary had a single 
altar under a canopy, and the Eucharist was allowed only once a day in any 
church. The sanctuary walls had niches and cupboards for prayer books, the 
Holy Communion vessels, the holy oil and some sanctified leavened bread 
for re-use in baking a new loaf in keeping with established tradition. A 
baptistry room is generally situated next to the sanctuary with double access 
from the altar and the nave. This was also used as a vestry. The lower end of 
the nave opened into an enclosure with an oven for baking the holy bread. 
The call to prayer was made on the semantron , a wooden plank beaten with a 
hammer. The semantron is still used in the older Greek monasteries on Mount 
Sinai in Egypt and on Mount Athos in Greece. 

W aning of Syriac Literature 

Although the present work cannot possibly deal with all the literary achieve¬ 
ments of the various communities of eastern Christians in their many lan¬ 
guages, a few notes will be given on some facets of importance to the 
development of Christian thought. For the earliest times of Christianity, 
no writer can afford to overlook the special place which Syriac religious work 
occupied side by side with Greek, Latin and Coptic. Prior to the fifth 
century, when the christological controversies led to an open rupture be¬ 
tween the Monophysite western Syrians and the Diophysite eastern Syrians, 
Syriac literature was neither Jacobite nor Nestorian but rather unified. It was 
essentially Biblical, homiletic and theological in character. Illustrious names 
such as Aphraates, Ephraem Syrus and Rabbula belong to that age. Many 
of the famous names in the literary annals of the Syrians were also historic 
figures and consequently have had to be treated in the course of the general 
history of Antiochene developments. This was the case in regard to the 
Jacobites after the fifth century with such names as Michael the Syrian and 


Bar Hebraeus. Now, in dealing with the Nestorians, it is fitting to follow up 
the phases which ended in the decline and fall of Syriac literature. 

Since their separation, the Nestorians, or East Syrians, had been lured 
away from Syriac literature by the circumstances of living in the Persian 
empire, and by their tremendous missionary enterprise across Asia. Then 
with the advent of the Arabs, Nestorian scholars tended to become Arabi- 
cized, and their role in translating the great works of the Greek philosophers 
and writers in Syriac became a standing monument to Nestorian learning. 
It is true that the field of Syriac did not become utterly sterile under those 
circumstances. Even during the fateful years of the Arab thrust into Persia 
in the seventh century, we read of a certain Joseph Hazzaya, a Nestorian 
convert of Persian origin, who was seized by the men of Caliph r Umar 
(654-44) and sold into slavery. He regained his liberty in Kurdistan, where 
he established a monastery and distinguished himself in Syriac theological 
literature. Apparently he was a man of keen perception and a prolific author 
in Syriac. The mediaeval register of Syriac manuscripts by r Abd-Ishu' 
ascribes to Hazzaya the fabulous number of 1,900 Syriac works, mostly 
lost. His new Syriac version of the Paradise of the Fathers by Palladius 1 
was a contribution of the highest order. 

Though persisting as a spoken language amongst the Nestorians through¬ 
out their history, Syriac began its steady decline as a literary language during 
the Arab period. Great Nestorian scholars of the time of the early caliphate 
such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his school were bilingual, but thev preferred 
in principle to write their best works in Arabic rather than Syriac. We almost 
reach the nadir of Syriac literature among the Nestorians in the course of the 
tenth century. The increase in output of Syriac grammars and lexicons at the 
time can only be explained by the pressing need for such treatises as a means 
of preserving the language. This phenomenon is demonstrated by the abun¬ 
dance of pure linguistic studies, especially during the tenth century or even 
the late ninth, when Arabic was in the ascendant at the expense of Syriac. 
Ishu r bar c Ali, a disciple of Hunayn, in the ninth century laid the foundation 
of Syriac lexicons with numerous Arabic glosses. Bar Bahloul, the Arabic 
Abul-Hasan ibn al-Bahlul, who taught in Ba gh dad in the tenth century, 
continued Bar r Ali’s work with many additions. Bar Maswai, better known 
in Arabic as Yahya ibn Masawayh (d. 857), composed his medical treatise 
both in Syriac and in Arabic. Grammatical works recurred frequently, and 
Elias bar Shinaia of Nisibis (d. 1049) wrote an ‘Interpreter’s Book’ com¬ 
prising an Arabic-Syriac vocabulary in addition to a Syriac grammar. 2 

1 Chabot, Li/terature , pp. 97, 100. Recapitulations of the same work were made later 
by Hanan-IshtF (Ananjesus) at the request of Patriarch Georges (658-80), which he 
enriched with material from St Jerome (pub. by P. Bcdjan, Paris, 1877). 

2 Ibid., pp. 118-19. 


The Nestorians had no such towering literary giants in later mediaeval times 
as Dionysius bar Sallbi, Michael the Great and Bar Hebrasus among the 
Jacobites. Nevertheless, we have to remember that the process of the disap¬ 
pearance of Nestorian Syriac literature was long and gradual. Nestorian 
writers of no special merit are to be found in every century until the thir¬ 
teenth when Syriac literary productivity came to a standstill. 

The ninth century was the dividing line after which the era of decline 
starts. We still meet with names of the older Syriac school. The Catholicos 
Timothy I (d. 823) is known to have written a lost astronomical treatise 
called the Book of the Stars. He left a great number of Epistles 1 which con¬ 
tain an apology of the Christian faith presented in the form of a discussion 
with the Caliph al-Mahdi (775-85). Apart from several homilies and an inter¬ 
pretation of Gregory Nazianzen, his most important work was a record of 
the acts of synods from 790 to 805. Other personalities included Ishu" bar 
Noun (Yashu r ibn Nun), who became patriarch in 823 through the influence 
of Gabriel Bokhtyeshu", private physician of the Caliph al-Ma 5 mun. He 
compiled a Syriac grammar and some theological treatises. Thomas of 
Marga, later metropolitan of Beth Garmai, wrote in 840 his famous Book of 
Governors , 2 destined to become one of the chief sources of religious and 
monastic history of the Nestorians until his time. Ishu f -Dadh of Marw 
about the middle of the century compiled what is probably the greatest 
Nestorian Biblical commentary. 3 4 At the end of the century, Ishu f Denha, 
bishop of al-Basrah, wrote several treatises on logic, ecclesiastical history and 
a Book of Chastity S 

The tenth century relapses into decadence, and we find only a limited 
number of ascetic, theological or liturgical treatises by Elias, bishop of al- 
Anbar, George, metropolitan of Mosul, Bar Bahloul and John bar Khaldoun. 
None of them rises to any great height, except perhaps the ascetic and 
mystical survey of the Nestorian monks by Bar Khaldoun. The eleventh 
century fares little better with very few names. Elias of Nisibis (d. 1049) 
left a chronicle besides the linguistic studies already mentioned. Abu Sa'Id 
f Abd-Ishu r bar Bahriz, metropolitan of Arbela and Mosul, compiled the 
laws and legal decisions which took the place of Nestorian canon law. In 
the twelfth century, most Nestorians wrote in Arabic, except for a stray 
example such as Simeon Shankelawi (or Shanklava), who left behind him a 

1 About 200, of which 60 arc known and partly pub. by Braun with a Latin translation 
(Paris, 1914); cf. Chabot, p. 108. 

2 English tr. W. Wallis Budge (London, 1893); A - Baumstark, Gesch. d. Syr. Lit., pp. 
233-4; Wright, pp. 219-20; Duval, E/ 7 /. Syr., pp. 206-7; Chabot, pp. 110-11. 

3 The Gospel part cd. Mrs Gibson (London, 1911); Chabot, p. 112. 

4 The history in 3 vols. was known to Michael the Syrian, but has been lost since. The 
last book pub. with French tr. J. B. Chabot, Litre de la Chastete (Rome, 1896); cf. Chabot, 

Lilt. Syr., p. 113. 


Syriac chronology and a Syriac treatise on the Nestorian Church hierarchy. 1 

The thirteenth century has a special characteristic amongst Nestorian 
writers, who took to composing their works in vulgar poetic form. Solomon 
of Khilat or Akhlat (on the shores of Lake Van in Armenia), later metropoli¬ 
tan of al-Basrah, wrote a book entitled The Bee , 2 a composition of mixed 
theological and historical material, in part legendary. George Warda of 
Arbela composed several hymns which were incorporated in Nestorian 
offices. More religious poetry was left by John of Mosul and Gabriel Camsa 
towards the end of the century. 

The only person to attain considerable eminence in matters of writing 
during that century was f Abd-Ishu r bar Berikha, who flourished under 
Yahballaha. He occupied the bishoprics of Sinjar, Shiggar and Beth Arabaye 
(Tur f AbdIn) for five years, and in 1290 became metropolitan of Nisibis 
and Armenia until his death in 1318. f Abd-Ishif, though incomparably 
short of Bar Hebrseus’ stature as a writer, will be found on the whole to 
occupy in Nestorian annals the same place as Bar Hebrxus in Jacobite 
literature. Like him, he was destined to be the last really great author in the 
Nestorian line; but unlike him, most of his works have been lost. Neverthe¬ 
less, all his writings are known through a complete list which he himself 
appended to his celebrated catalogue of ecclesiastical literature compiled in 
1316. With all its shortcomings, this work is a priceless record of Syriac 
literature. It is the first known attempt at a comprehensive bibliography of 
all works written in Syriac, with special reference to those of Nestorian 
origin or authorship. It is classified in four categories: first, books of the 
Old Testament and some of the Apocrypha; secondly, books of the New 
Testament; thirdly, the Greek Fathers in the Syriac tongue; and fourthly, the 
Syrian Fathers including the Nestorian authors from the fifth century (with a 
few exceptions). Apparently he compiled it from the Syriac material available 
in the manuscript repository at Nisibis, and his dependence on that source of 
information alone may account for the omissions in his lists. On the other 
hand, he brings to light titles unknown elsewhere. Since the author was 
probably doing this for himself and his disciples and colleagues, who were 
familiar with those books, he did not take the trouble to assemble all the 
usual data which would render it a catalogue raisonne. He did not bother to 
analyse the contents of each book or even to provide the precise dates of 
each manuscript. He was equally lax in the matter of chronological order. 3 

1 Chabot, L/ 7 /. Syr., pp. 118-20, 128. 

2 Ibid., p. 137; Wright, pp. 282-3. Analysed by Asscmani, Bibl. Or., Ill, 1, 309-24, 
‘The Bee’ appears in two European versions by J. M. Schonfcldcr (Bamberg, 1866) and 
W. Wallis Budge (Oxford, 1886). 

3 Chabot, pp. 14, 139; Wright, pp. 285-6. Asscmani, Bibl. Or., Ill, 325 et scq., gives 
extensive excerpts from it under the title‘Catalogus Librorum, Cap. CXCVIII - Ebcdjcsus 
Metropolita Sobcnsis’. 


r Abd-Ishu f s lost works comprise a Biblical commentary, a Life of Our Lord 
on Larth , a treatise called the Scholasticus Against Heresies , a book of the 
Mysteries of Greek Philosophers , a pretended Letter from Alexander the Great 
to Aristotle on Alchemy , and twelve discourses on all sciences together with 
some miscellaneous Arabic texts. Of the works still extant, The Pearl is his 
most valuable treatise on Nestorian theology and constitutes the official 
view of the sect. 1 Further, his codification of Nestorian canon law in his 
Epitome of Synodical Canons , 2 known briefly as Nomcanon , is the exact coun¬ 
terpart of a similar compilation by Bar Hebrxus for the Jacobites. It contains 
both the civil and the ecclesiastical laws in consecutive divisions, together 
with the fullest account of the organization of the Nestorian church at the 
end of the thirteenth century. Later, in 1316, he developed what he called 
Rules of Ecclesiastical Juridical Decisions. 

Conforming to the literary fashion of his time, r Abd-IshtF composed 
several metrical and poetical works which gained wide popularity with his 
native countrymen. He wrote a discourse on the calendar in verse, and he 
even versified his catalogue. His most important poetical work is the Paradise 
of Eden , a collection of fifty theological and homiletic poems inspired by the 
Arabic Maqdmdt , or rhymed sessions of al-Harlri, also fifty in number. Al¬ 
though he did not attain the literary heights of al-Hariri’s work, he demon¬ 
strated much ability and imagination in combining meanings with word and 
letter in the construction of poems and lines which could be read forwards 
and backwards yielding precisely the same text. 3 He finished the Paradise 
in 1290, but found it necessary to supplement it with additional explanatory 
notices as late as 1316. He also composed another set of twenty-two poems 
on the love of wisdom and knowledge. 

Like Bar Hebneus in Jacobite literary history, f Abd-Ishu" was the last great 
figure in Nestorian literary history. After his day, Syriac was retained merely 
as a spoken language and a liturgical repository of Nestorian offices, with 
perhaps two solitary exceptions. These were the fourteenth-century canonico- 
liturgical treatise entitled On the Sacraments 4 by Patriarch Timothy II (d. 
1328) and the anonymous History of Yahballaha III . 5 

1 The Syriac Marganltha, cd. with Latin tr. by Cardinal Mai (Rome, 1838), with some 
omissions. The complete text appeared at Mosul in 1924. 

2 Analysed by Assemani, Bibl. Orient., Ill, 1, 332-51. 

3 Analysed by Assemani, Bibl. Orient , III, 1, 325-32; text of 25 pub. P. Cardahi (Beirut, 
1889); cf. Chabot, Litt. Syr., p. 141; Wright, pp. 287-8, A. Baumstark, Gesch. d. Syr. Lit., 
pp. 323-5. 

4 Assemani, Bibl. Orient, III, 1, 572-80. 

5 Orig. Persian, with an early Syriac tr., this work cd. P. Bedjan (Paris, 1888); French 
tr. J. B. Chabot (Paris, 1897); cf. Chabot, Litt. Syr., p. 142. 




General Remarks 

The story of the Armenian people and their Church is one of great tribulation 
and heroism. Although Armenian Christianity never attained the heights of 
universalism which characterized many of the ancient churches, it bears many 
unique features of which the Armenians have rightly prided themselves within 
their own frontiers. For one thing, Armenia was the very first kingdom in 
history to adopt Christianity as the official religion of both the state and the 
people at one and the same time. Its record of martyrs and saints, starting 
with the rest of the Christian world in antiquity, was replenished by a con¬ 
tinuous chain of massacres which lasted until the twentieth century. In spite 
of their dispersion over all the countries of the Middle East and continents of 
the world, the Armenian people have preserved their own personality and 
retained their language and social and racial characteristics. The Armenian, 
much like the Jew or the Greek, has remained an Armenian above all other 
considerations. His tenacity had become proverbial, and perhaps the elements 
of language and religion were and still are decisive factors in the preservation 
of the race. Although small numbers of Armenians have become Protestant 
or turned to Rome, the bulk of the Armenian people as a whole has retained 
allegiance to the ancestral Eastern Church with its distinctive Monophysite 
character. It is estimated that at least three-quarters of the Armenians through¬ 
out the world are loyal members of their ancient native Gregorian 

The earliest geographical frontiers of Armenia stretched roughly from the 
Caucasas Mountains in the north to the Taurus Mountains in the south and 
from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west. Tradition has 
it that here was the site of the Garden of Eden where, according to Genesis ii, 
io ‘a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was 
parted, and became into four heads’. The fourth of those ‘heads’ or rivers was 
the Euphrates. That was, too, the land of Mount Ararat (17,000 feet high), 
where Noah’s ark rested and life on earth was reborn. In this way, Armenia 
has therefore been closely associated with early Biblical tradition. In fact, 



Armenians claim to possess still a fragment of the ark in one of their monas¬ 
teries at Etshmiadzin, now within the southern borders of the Soviet Union. 
Wedged between Persia and Greece in antiquity, and amidst a host of 
belligerent powers in the Middle Ages, the country was harassed by Persian, 
Greek, Arab, Mongol, Egyptian and Turk until the last century, when the 
Armenian nation was menaced by complete extermination from its homeland. 
Originally, however, Armenians spread over parts of Kurdistan round Lake 
Van, western Anatolia and the upper Euphrates. To the north-east of the 
Euphrates, stretching towards the Caucasus and the Black Sea, was the 
country identified as Greater Armenia, whereas Lesser Armenia, or Cilicia, 
occupied the territories east of the river in the direction of the eastern Medi¬ 
terranean. Its frontiers were very mobile and dependent on the force of the 
successive invasions from east and west, as will be seen presently from the 
historical survey of that much-battered nation. The main roads connecting 
the Iranian plateau with the Anatolian ports on the shores of the Mediter¬ 
ranean ran into the Armenian valleys and the country was consequently 
coveted by all those who aspired to control the commerce of the Orient and 
the politics of the ancient and mediaeval worlds. From all this, we can realize 
how much the physical features of Armenia contributed to the shaping of its 

I he word ‘Armenian’ is of Greek origin, since the Armenians themselves 
call their nation ‘Haikh’ and their country ‘Hayastan’. The father of the 
Armenian people, so runs the legend, was named Haik, a grandson of the 
Biblical Japheth. Racially they are an Indo-Aryan people, and their language 
with its ostensibly peculiar sounds and combinations of consona nt formations 
has come to occupy a special place in the tree of Indo-European tongues. 
The Armenians number between three and a half and four millions. 1 About 
two and a half millions are almost evenly divided between Turkey and Russia, 

1 Fortescue, p. 396, puts the following estimates: 1,300,000 in Turkey; 1,200,000 
in Russia; 50,000 in Persia; about one million in India, Egypt, Europe and America. 
L. Arpee, History of Armenian Christianity , from the Beginning to Our Own Time (New York, 
1946), p. 307, is more restrained in his estimate of a total of two and one-half million, 
of whom 1,200,000 are in Soviet Armenia, 600,000 in Georgia and Azerbaijan, 120,000 
in northern Caucasus and Greater Russia, about 100,000 in Turkey, half of whom are in 
Constantinople, 150,000 in Syria (including, of course, Lebanon); 100,000 in Persia; 
150,000 in the United States of America; and 25,000 to 50,000 in each of France, Rou- 
mania, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt, and Iraq; in addition to smaller Armenian colonies in 
Latin America, England, Belgium, Italy, Central Europe, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Palestine, 
India, Java and the Philippines. M. Ormanian, The Church of Armenia (London, 1955), 
p. 212, sums up with the following: Total Dioceses, 26; Armenian Church Members, 
3 > 6 74 > 757 ; Parishes, 446; Churches, 417; Catholic Armenians, 51,349; Protestant Armen¬ 
ians, 29,667. Although the book was written in the first decade of this century, the above 
figures have been appended to the English translation on the basis of Armenian diocesan 
statistics in 1954. (References made in these notes to Fortescue, we mean Adrian and not 
E. F. K. Fortescue.) 


and the rest are spread all over the Middle East, India, Europe and America. 
They are known for their extraordinary ability in business, their technical 
skill and indefatigable industry. Wherever they went, they generally grew 
rich and aroused economic jealousy among the natives. 

It will be seen that, in spite of their precarious existence, the Armenians 
have made a real contribution to the civilized world in numerous fields. 

The land in and on the fringe of Anatolia which they occupied before their 
dispersion was mountainous and thickly wooded, but intercepted by valleys 
and many arable plains. This accounts for the agricultural origins and ability 
in cattle-raising 1 which the Armenians were destined to lose under the relent¬ 
less tide of invasion and this resulting tendency to emigrate to urban areas in 
other countries. Nevertheless, the isolation of the Armenian people in those 
remote valleys for many centuries imparted to them those national qualities 
which they appear to have retained throughout their subsequent history, even 
after their dispersion. 

The general trends prevailing in Armenian Christianity have much in 
common with the rest of the ancient Oriental churches, especially the Coptic 
Church in Egypt. These trends may be summed up in its national character 
and its democratic organization. From the fourth century when the Armen¬ 
ians broke away from Caesarea, their church declared thereby its determination 
to repudiate all control from Antioch, Constantinople or Rome. On the other 
hand, it never objected to any spiritual union with other sister churches in 
conformity with the basic features of primitive Christianity. Furthermore, 
we have to bear in mind that Armenian religious affairs were conducted by a 
hierarchy invariably elected by the Armenian people, who constituted the 
body politic of the church. The existence of secular councils to shoulder with 
the patriarchs the responsibility of deciding the policies of the community of 
the faithful outside purely doctrinal matters was a significant landmark, and 
the adherence of the church to the practice of allowing the congregation to 
participate in the selection of its own bishop may be regarded as a continua¬ 
tion from the age of Apostolic Christianity. The effects of a growing theocracy 
which were becoming more and more noticeable with the passing ages at 
Constantinople and Rome thus failed to influence the Armenian Church 

The following chapters on Armenian Church history are compiled in the 
main from secondary writings, chiefly because of the linguistic difficulties of 
the sources. However, representative works of native Armenian scholarship 
have also been used, as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant accounts of 
this interesting story. One of the best spokesmen of these varied shades is 
Malachia Ormanian, himself an Armenian patriarch of Constantinople and a 

1 The Armenians are known for their wealth of cattle since remote antiquity, according 
to Herodotus; cf. F. Nansen, Armenia and the Near East (London, 1928), p. 233. 

H E C—L 


good historian whose works are now known in English and French. 1 
Another is Leon Arpee, whose History of Armenian Christianity 2 marked the 
commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Armenian Protestantism 
(1846-1946). The author, who is of course a Protestant, writes with affection 
though not uncritically about the church of his forebears. His chief sympathy, 
however, remains with the new denomination of his own adoption, and he 
tries continually to make a case for the Protestant minority. A third work, by 
Adrien Fortescue, is on the lesser Eastern Churches. Its scholarship is pro¬ 
found, but is frequently marred by bouts of Roman Catholic propaganda. 
Other writings quoted or studied in the course of constructing this brief 
survey of an intricate subject are mentioned in the footnotes; and it must be 
admitted that our dependence on the Armenian-speaking historians has been 
great in matter of documentation. After a brief survey of the historical 
background of Armenian Christianity, we shall analyse the origins and 
development of the church and its patriarchates and conclude with a general 
perspective of the present condition, organization and contribution of the 
hierarchy and faith of the Armenians. 

The Armenian people long down-trodden, persecuted and massacred almost 
to the point of extinction at one moment, have re-emerged on the scene of 
Eastern Christianity as a nation whose tenacity, integrity and will to live 
and to succeed under the most untoward circumstances have commanded 
universal respect. 

Historical Background 

Like most of the nations of the Levant, the Armenians had a long history 
whose myth and legends are lost in antiquity. Here we are mainly concerned 
with the era of the appearance of Christianity in their midst, an era which 
coincides with the leadership of Rome. Being on the crossroads between East 
and West, between Persia and Greece at the outset, the country was first 
assimilated in the empire of Darius I (521-486 b.c.), then swallowed up by 
Alexander’s world conquests (336-323 b.c.) and inherited by the Seleucids 
when Antiochus III defeated the Romans in the East in 190 b.c. At this point 
Armenia emerges as an independent state under a ruler of Greek extraction. 

1 This work appeared first in French in Paris in 1910, then in Armenian in Constanti¬ 
nople in 1911 (with 4 subs, edns.), and the first English tr. by G. Marcar Gregory pub. 
1912. The second English edn. of 1955 (used here) prepared by the late Rev. Terenig 
Poladian, former Dean of the Armenian Theological Seminary at Antelias, Lebanon. 

2 Published by the Armenian Missionary Association of America. Arpee is a graduate 
of the Oberlin School of Theology, and his father was a converted Protestant missionary 
with the American Board Mission at Constantinople. 


Its proximity to Persia, however, rendered it an easy prey to the expansionist 
policy of the Parthians until one of its kings, Dikran I, or Tigranes the Great, 
recovered Armenian independence from both Persia and the Seleucids in the 
early decades of the first century before Christ, only to succumb ultimately 
to the Romans in 66 b.c. For approximately five centuries afterwards, suzer¬ 
ainty over Armenia passed from the hated Persian to a loathsome Roman or 
was forcibly divided between them. In the end, the Roman Emperor Maurice 
(5 82-602) turned the whole country into a single province under Roman rule. 
During those unsettled and hard times we hear of native Armenian kings, 
famous amongst whom are Trdat II, who fled from the Persians to Rome 
in 261, and Arshak, whom the Persians carried into captivity in 364. How¬ 
ever, the Arshakuni (Arsasid) dynasty in its precarious existence survived the 
Arab conquest in the seventh century when the country again became the 
object of dispute between the caliphate and the Byzantine empire. In their 
buffer state, the Armenians had fared ill with the Byzantines because of their 
repudiation of Chalcedon and their adherence to the principles of Alexandrine 
theology. Thus it mattered little to them whether they retained their allegiance 
to Constantinople on the one side or to Umayyad Damascus and Abbasid 
Ba gh dad on the Islamic side. Ultimately, an Armenian prince and patriot by 
the name of Ashot I succeeded in establishing the new Bagratuni dynasty in 
8) 6. Ashot the Great thus became ‘king of kings’ of Armenia, Georgia and 
the lands of the Caucasus. His title was ratified by the caliphs and confirmed 
by the Byzantine emperor, who deemed it wise also to offer him the crown. 1 
The Armenians, who hated Greek autocracy as much as the Arab yoke, were 
able to hold their own in the face of both masters though they continued to 
be under titular Arab suzerainty until the very eve of the Crusades in 1071. 2 
Then the appearance of the Saljuq Turks obliterated Armenian independence, 
and the kingdom of Greater Armenia on the fringe of the Caucasus has never 
since been fully restored. 3 

Actually, the never ending exodus of the Armenians from the old home¬ 
land began in that period; and although numbers of them emigrated to 
numerous neighbouring countries in the Levant, the major part of the nation 
crossed over to Cilicia towards the south and established a new principality 
of Lesser Armenia under Prince Reuben, a relative of the last Armenian king, 
whose successors were content with the title of baron and treated with the 

J Serapie Der Nessessian , Armenia and the Byzantine Empire - A Brief Study of Armenian 
Civilisation (Cambridge, Mass., 1945), p. 9. 

2 J. Laurent, E’Armenie entre By stance et V Islam depuis la conquete arabe (Paris, 1919), pp. 9 
ct seq., is perhaps the fullest account up to the year 886. Sec also Rene Groussct, Histoire 
de I'Armenie des origines a ioyi (Paris, 1947), pp. 296 ct seq. 

3 Arpce, Hist, of Christianity , pp. 44-57 (Struggle with Persia), pp. 75-89 (Arab Domina¬ 
tion); E. F. K. Fortescue, Armenian Church (London, 1872), pp. 17-41; A. Fortcscue, 
Lesser Eastern Churches , pp. 383 et seq. 


Crusaders from the West. They built a new capital by the name of Sis in the 
north-east, inland from Adana. This phase of Armenian history is marked 
by fresh influences. In addition to the Byzantine and Turkish factors, their 
destiny was affected by the Latins from the west and soon afterwards by the 
Egyptian Mamluks from the south as well as the Mongol hordes from the 
east. For the time being, the Cilician princes chose closer contacts with the 
Crusaders, even recognizing the sovereignty of Antioch and making attempts 
at union with Rome. In the end Leo I (1129-39), surnamed the Great, aspired 
to the royal crown, and in return for this, allied himself with Emperor Fred¬ 
erick Barbarossa, but Frederick was drowned in the River Saleph in Asia 
Minor before making him king. Frederick’s son Henry VI (1190-7) carried 
out his father’s pledge, and Armenia became a kingdom again. Meanwhile, 
the Byzantine Emperor Alexius III (1195-1203), who wished to preserve his 
traditional, suzerainty over the Armenians, sent Leo II another crown with 
an invitation to come to Constantinople. Thus Leo’s title became undisputed 
by East and West, and he was recognized as the greatest hero of Armenia 
since Dikran I. The new line remained in close contact with the Crusaders 
until the extermination of Latin dominion on the mainland was achieved by 
the Mamluks when Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil seized "Akka in 1291. The hostility 
to the Christians, however, survived the downfall of the Latin Kingdom of 
Jerusalem, and the Egyptian counter-crusade was directed against the king¬ 
dom of Armenia, which was situated on the northern border of Syria. In 13 7 5, 
the amir of Halab (Aleppo) crushed the little kingdom and carried Leo VI, 1 
the last of the Armenian kings in chains to the Citadel of Cairo. Later Leo 
was released on the condition that he should never set foot on Armenian 
soil. He died childless in Paris in 1393. His line thus became extinct and the 
title to his shadowy crown passed to the house of Lusignan in Cyprus. 

After the withdrawal of Timur Lane from western Asia with Bayezid I as 
his captive in 1402, the Ottomans gradually extended their rule over the whole 
of Anatolia, including Armenian territories. The expansionist policy of the 
Turkish empire engulfed Syria and Egypt in 1516-17 and brought its frontiers 
into direct contact with Persia. Thus Armenia became again the battlefield 
of the Turco-Persian strife, more especially in the reign of Shah "Abbas 
(15 86-1628). As a frontier country, it was perpetually devastated, and Persian 
encroachments resulted in new unspeakable horrors amidst the defenceless 
Armenians. In the eighteenth century one Armenian name shone like a meteor 
when a certain David led a rebellion for the liberation of his country which 
was again buried with him in 1728. The oppressed Armenians then appealed 
to Russia for protection, which was promised by the tzars from the reign 
of Peter the Great (1689-1725) onwards, but without concrete results until 
war broke out between the two empires and Russia annexed Transcaucasia 

1 Sometimes also styled Leo V. 


as far as the River Aras in 1829. This brought a considerable section of the 
old territory of Greater Armenia including the Armenian holy city of 
Etshmiadzin within the realm of Orthodox Christianity. But this did not help 
the rest of the Armenians within the Turkish borders. They became the object 
of hatred and severe oppression. Meanwhile, Russian intervention aroused 
British fears and jealousy. They too posed as protectors of the Armenian 
people, but their vacillation between those two conflicting great powers had 
tragic results. 

In fact, until the beginning of the nineteenth century the Armenians in 
Turkey had been living as all other Christian communities under the millet 1 
system, but with even a greater measure of self-government. More privileges 
were acquired by the TIatti Sherif’ 2 of Gulhane in 1839 anc ^ Constitution 
of 1863, which assured Armenians of a semi-independent state within the 
framework and under the sovereignty of the Turks. Armenian youth, on the 
other hand, aspired to complete independence from Turkey and started plot¬ 
ting inside the country and abroad to realize that aim. At the time of the 
accession of Sultan 'Abdul-Hamid in 1876, the ‘Armenian Question’ was a 
burning one, and the sympathy it received in Europe fanned more trouble. 
The inclusion of a protection clause for Christians in Turkey by Britain in 
the Berlin Treaty of 13 July 1878 encouraged the revolutionary youth even 
against the advice of the older generation and the church hierarchy. Under¬ 
ground societies were formed, of which the most celebrated was the ‘Hun- 
chak’ 3 National party, started in Paris in 1885, and exciting circulars were 
published abroad and smuggled into Turkey in order to arouse public 
opinion. Special printing presses were set up on foreign soil for the publica¬ 
tion of fiery appeals in Armenian. Even Catholic minorities took part in this 
movement, and their activity was demonstrated in the Armenian publications 
of the Mekhitarist fathers in Venice. The sultan was infuriated by all these 
clandestine movements, and he tried to play off Britain against Russia in 
regard to the tzarist expansionist policy in Armenia. Thus he acceded to 
Britain’s claim to the title of protector of the sultan’s Christian subjects in 
Asia Minor and even granted Britain the right to occupy Cyprus in return 
for impeding further Russian penetration into Armenia. This is the Cyprus 

1 The Arabic word millah , religion. Thus each Christian community was organized as 
a separate entity with the patriarch at its head aided by secular and ecclesiastical councils 
under Ottoman rule. The origin of this system is the so-called ‘Covenant of f Umar’, 
according protection to non-Muslim subjects known as Dhimmis , also in Ottoman times 
as Rayah , which is the Arabic ra'iyab or subjects. On that Covenant, see A. S. Tritton, 
The Caliphs and their Non-Aluslim Subjects (Oxford, 1930), pp. 5-17. A Summary of the 
millet system is given by Sarkis Atamian, The Armenian Community (New York, 1955), 
pp. 26-7. 

2 The Arabic al-khatt al-Sharij\ i.e., the noble or holy script of a Turkish Firman. 

3 Meaning bell or clarion, the Hunchakian Party was socialist in character. See analysis 
of its constitution in Sarkis Atamian, pp. 94-100. 


Convention, whose repercussions are still felt to the present day. The situation 
thus became highly complicated with opposite pressures on the Sublime 
Porte from outside and the continual danger of an explosive revolt among 
the Armenians from within. The sultan decided to resort to the summary 
methods of a real tyrant in solving the problem. During 1894, the state com¬ 
placency led in the first place to a Kurdish attack on the Armenians in the 
Sasun region near Diyarbekr, and the Turkish army moved to the area officially 
to quell the movement, but actually it took to burning several Armenian 
villages and killing the inhabitants. The young Armenians in the capital 
responded by their underground activities. In 1895 the sultan gave the signal 
for the bloodiest massacre, in which about 80,000 Armenians perished at 
Trebizond and in the adjoining Armenian provinces. 1 Then Hunchak in¬ 
cendiaries immediately answered by setting fire to the Ottoman Bank in 
Istanbul in 1896; and though the culprits were saved by deportation through 
diplomatic interference, innocent Armenians in remote places suffered the 
consequences. In two days 6,000 Armenians lost their lives. The election of 
the Patriarch Malachia Ormanian in the same year ushered in a period of 
respite through his wise and conciliatory policy towards the Sublime Porte 
and the Kurdish tribes. Thus general amnesty was proclaimed, and an un¬ 
certain peace reigned for a few years, to be broken again in 1905 with the 
Cilician massacre in which 20,000 Armenians perished. 2 

The final chapter of the Armenian tragedy under Turkey occurred during 
the First World War. Armenian leaders declared their loyalty to the sultan 
and Armenian recruits joined his fighting forces. Turkish doubts, however, 
resulted in the maltreatment of their contingent which was soon disbanded. 
The Turkish government, moreover, made the serious decision of mass 
deportation of the Armenians from Anatolia to Syria and Iraq. It is said that 
one third of the Armenian population was forced to leave their homes in 
Turkey, another third escaped and remained in the country, and the other 
third was simply massacred during 1915. 3 In the following year Russia em- 

1 See ‘The Hamidean Massacres (1894-7)’, in Sarkis Atamian, pp. 130-54; also M. C. 
Gabrielian, Armenia - A Martyr Nation (New York, 1918), pp. 250 et seq. 

2 Arpee, pp. 244-50, 252-65, 293-308. 

3 Gabrielian, pp. 298 et seq.; A. J. Toynbee, Armenian Atrocities - The Murder of a 
Nation (London, 1915), with a speech by Lord Bryce in the House of Lords; H. A. 
Gibbons, The Slackest Page of Modern History - Armenian Events of 19ij (London, 1916). 
F. Nansen, Armenia and the Near East (London, 1928), p. 307, quotes a cypher telegram 
from the Minister of Interior (Tala'at Bey) to the Police Office at Aleppo, the text of which, 
if not a forgery, is distressing: ‘It has already been reported that by the order of the Com¬ 
mittee the Government have determined completely to exterminate the Armenians living 
in Turkey. Those who refuse to obey this order cannot be regarded as friends of the 
government. Regardless of women, children, or invalids, and however deplorable the 
methods of destruction may seem, an end is to be put to their existence without paying 
any heed to feeling or conscience.’ The same functionary, however, issued subsequent 
orders for sparing children under five, since they could be brought up as good Turks, 
thus reminiscent of old Janissary tradition. 


barked on the conquest of Turkish Armenia on the grounds of the liberation 
of its people from the yoke of the Turk. Their manoeuvres were interrupted 
by the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution towards the end of 1917, and 
the Cossacks in the Caucasus abandoned the Armenians, who continued to 
fight single-handed the superior forces of the enemy. With varying fortunes 
in an unequal battle, the Armenians, who dreaded the Turks, succeeded by 
sheer determination and desperate fighting in saving their capital Erivan. 
Meanwhile, the armistice of 11 November 1918 brought operations to a 
standstill and gave the Armenians a breathing-space until the British police 
arrived in the Caucasus. 

The details of subsequent events which determined the future of the 
Armenian people fall within the realm of purely political history. It is suffi¬ 
cient here to outline the salient factors at play in the whole drama. While 
Britain openly favoured self-determination for the Armenian people, their 
police force in control of the Transcaucasus failed to keep the peace in the 
area. They inadvertantly weakened the Armenian cause by disbanding most 
of its troops and by the shipment of its arsenal to the armies engaged in 
fighting the Russian counter-revolutionaries. Thus while Woodrow Wilson 
and the Allies were re-instating a new Armenian Republic on paper extending 
from Trebizond to Van, and while the Treaty of Sevres recognizing Armen¬ 
ian independence in 1920 was being signed, the real issue for all practical 
purposes was in the course of being decided by the armies of nationalist 
Turkey and Soviet Russia in the field. In the tug-of-war between them, the 
Turks again managed to massacre some 30,000 Armenians. 1 After the stabiliza¬ 
tion of Russia and the advance of Russian troops inside Azerbaijan, the real 
peace was re-established by the signing of the Treaty of Moscow in 1921 
laying down the Armenian frontiers without the regions from Trebizond to 

The beginnings of Armenian independence within the framework of Soviet 
Socialist Russia was achieved in two successive stages. First, in 1922 Armenia, 
Georgia and Azerbaijan were united in a single state named Transcaucasian 
Soviet Federated Socialist Republics. Second, when the aforementioned federa¬ 
tion was dissolved in 1936, its three members became members of the Union 
of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Armenia had its new constitution as such. 
In 1928 the Armenian Communist Party numbered 61,245 out of a total 
population of 1,147,000. In 1939 the Armenians in Russia as a whole reached 
2,151,884, of whom 1,025,000 remained inside the Armenian Soviet Socialist 
Republic. The actual area of the Republic is 11,506 square miles instead of 
40,000 square miles stipulated in the Treaty of Sevres. 2 It is centred around 

1 Arpce, History of Armenian Christianity , p. 305, says that in February, 20,000 perished at 
Marash and in October, 10,000 more at Hadjin. 

2 Figures taken from the article on Armenia in the Eticyclopadia Britannica (1957 cd.). 


Lake Sevan with Erevan as the political, and Etshmiadzin as the religious 

Against this background of a long and confused series of events, we have 
to review the development of Armenian Christianity and the rise of the ancient 
native church of Armenia. The one characteristic which stands out from any 
survey of Armenian history is the individualistic personality of its people. 
The mystery surrounding the Armenians is due to a widespread ignorance of 
their history, though interest in their fortunes has been accelerated in recent 
years by the gruesome massacres of that unhappy nation. Throughout the 
successive phases of their long history, the Armenians preserved their own 
special character and civilization and refused absorption by any alien master, 
even at the risk of extermination. 


Pre-Gregorian Christianity and the Age of Legend 

The earliest chapter in the history of Armenian Christianity is rather vague 
on account of the absence or the scarcity of source material on the first three 
centuries. The Armenians had a spoken language but they had not yet 
developed an alphabet by which to record their native annals. At the opening 
of the Christian era, the Armenians had been under the influence of Persian 
religious tradition, though the Asiatic conquest of Alexander the Great also 
left its Greek impression on their modes of worship. Thus we find elements 
of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism combined with numerous Hellenic myths 
in Armenia 1 at the time when the Apostles attacked paganism amidst the 
peoples of the old world. It is conceivable that Armenia, because of its close 
proximity to Palestine, the fountain head of the faith of Jesus, may have been 
visited by the early propagators of Christianity, although it is difficult to 
define the extent of the spread of this new religion among its inhabitants. 
Orthodox Armenian historians, such as Ormanian, 2 labour to make a case 
for the continuity of Apostolic succession in their Church. To him the ‘First 
Illuminators of Armenia’ were Saints Thaddxus and Bartholomew whose 
very shrines still stand in the churches of Artaz (Macoo) and Alpac (Bashkale) 
in south-east Armenia and have always been venerated by Armenians. A 
popular tradition amongst them ascribes the first evangelization of Armenia 
to the Apostle Judas Thaddasus 3 who, according to their chronology spent 
the years 43-66 a.d. in that country and was joined by St Bartholomew in 
the year 60 a.d. The latter was martyred in 68 a.d. at ‘Albanus’. 4 According 
to Armenian tradition, therefore, Thaddteus became the first patriarch of the 

1 Arpee, pp. 7-8, gives examples of survivals of the ancient religion in the customs and 
superstitions of the Armenians. 2 Church of Armenia , pp. 3-7. 

3 To be distinguished from Judas Iscariot, occurring in Matt, x: 3 and Mark iii: 18, 
sometimes also ‘Lebbxus’, believed to be one of the Brethren of Our Lord and author 
of the Epistle of Jude, often identified as r Addai, one of the Seventy’, who figured in the 
Abgar legend. 

4 Identified by Ormanian (p. 3) as ‘Albacus’, that is Albac or Alpac. 



Armenian Church, thus rendering it both Apostolic and autocephalous. 
Another tradition ascribes to the see of Artaz a line of seven bishops 
whose names are known and the periods of whose episcopates bring the 
succession to the second century. Furthermore, the annals of Armenian 
martyrology refer to a host of martyrs in the Apostolic age. A roll of a 
thousand victims including men and women of noble descent lost their lives 
with St Thaddaeus, while others perished with St Bartholomew. 

It is interesting to note that the apocryphal story of King Abgar and Our 
Lord was reiterated by some native writers as having occurred in Armenia 
in order to heighten the antiquity of that religion amongst their forefathers. 1 

Though it is hard to confirm or confute the historicity of these legends so 
dear to the hearts of Armenians, it may be deduced from contemporary 
writers that there were Christians in Armenia before the advent of St Gregory 
Illuminator, the fourth-century apostle of Armenian Christianity. Eusebius of 
Cassarea (ca. 260-340 a.d.) refers to the Armenians in his Ecclesiastical History 
on two occasions. First, he states that Dionysius of Alexandria (d. ca. 264), 
pupil of Origen, wrote an Epistle ‘On Repentance’, ‘to those in Armenia . . . 
whose bishop was Meruzanes’. 2 On a second occasion, speaking of Emperor 
Maximin’s persecution of 311-13, he says that ‘the tryant had the further 
trouble of the war against the Armenians, men who from ancient times had 
been friends and allies of the Romans; but as they were Christians and ex¬ 
ceedingly earnest in their piety towards the Deity, this hater of God [i.e., 
Maximin], by attempting to compel them to sacrifice to idols and demons, 
made of them foes instead of friends, and enemies instead of allies’. 3 Although 
this second episode must have occurred in the lifetime of Gregory the 
Illuminator, there is no doubt as to the antiquity of the first reference to the 

Further, if we believe the argument advanced by Ormanian and other 
native Armenian historians about a second-century quotation from Tertul- 
lian, it must be admitted that Christianity was not unknown in that region 
at that early date. This seems to be the case as we read of the Persian persecu¬ 
tions of Christians in Armenia by Artashes (Artaxerxes) about the year 110 a.d. 
and by Chosroes about 230. It is possible that the Persian tyrant almost 
blotted out the Christian religion from Armenia, where he exerted every effort 
to introduce Mazdaism in its place. 

1 The Armenian writers are Lerubna of Edessa and Moses of Khoren, in V". Langlois, 
Coll, des historiens anciens et modernes d'Armenie, 2 vols., (Paris 1880), I, 315-26, 326-31, and 
Ih 93 - 100; also A. Carriere, Ca Eegende d’Abgar dans Vhist, d'Artnenie de Moise de Khoren 
(Paris, 1895); English tr. of Moses of Chorene, Hist, of Arm. y in The Ante-Nicene Fathers , 
VIII, 702-7. 

2 Hist. Ecc/es., VI, xlvi. Meruzanes (or Mitrozancs), identified by Ormanian (p. 6) as 
Mehroojan, successor of the aforementioned bishops of Artaz. 

3 Op. cit., IX, viii. Duchesne, III, 366, thinks that Eusebius had in mind Lesser, not 
Greater, Armenia. 


Armenian Christianity was, however, still in its infancy, and some writers 
think that it was neither orthodox nor apostolic, but rather Ebionite or 
Judaistic in character. 1 Armenian heterodoxy regarding the humanity and 
deity of Our Lord approached adoptionism, an early heresy which asserted 
that the sonship of God was not actual but merely adoptive. This stream of 
thought appears to have infiltrated into Armenia from Antioch, more especi¬ 
ally in the days of its metropolitan, Paul of Samosata, in the course of the 
third century. 2 

The unsettled mind of the Armenians about their creed, and the oscillation 
between paganism and Christianity in Armenia was soon to be stabilized by 
the historic apostle of Armenian Christianity and the real founder of Armenia’s 
church, Gregory surnamed the Illuminator. Before his time this religion was 
still unrecognized and often combated not only by foreign pagan invaders of 
that country but also by its own Armenian rulers. Until then, we must assume 
that no systematic evangelization had been practised in Armenia, and only 
stray preachers emerged on the scene of events from three main centres, that 
is, Jerusalem, Cxsarea and Edessa. 

St Gregory the Illuminator 

The historic role of the Church of Armenia began with the life and work of 
its real apostle, St Gregory, surnamed the Illuminator, 3 towards the end of 
the third and at the beginning of the fourth century. The country had fallen 
under the Persian yoke and the Sassanid emperors ruthlessly laboured for the 
spreading of their Mazdaitic religion about the middle of the third century. 
Thus many Armenians took to flight from the face of their oppressors to 
other adjacent countries. Amongst these were two youths worthy of special 
note. The one was the son of the Armenian King Khosrov, assassinated by a 
member of his family called Anak who was himself killed in turn by royal 
courtiers. His name was Trdat or Tiridates. The other was Anak’s son and 
his name was Gregory. Both were of aristocratic descent. The first went to 
Rome where he was brought up in the Western pagan tradition, while the 
second [i.e. Gregory] stopped at Caesarea in Cappadocia and there received his 
initiation in the tenets of the faith from the early Christian divines of its early 
church. Afterwards Khosrov’s son recovered his father’s lost throne in 287 a.d. 
with the aid of Emperor Diocletian the inveterate enemy of Christianity, 

1 F. C. Conybeare, The Key of Truth (Oxford, 1898), pp. xc ct seq.; cf. Arpcc, p. 8. 

2 A. von Harnack, History of Dogma (New York, 1957), p. 173; Arpee, pp. 9-10. 

3 Loosavoritsh in Armenian, also called ‘St Gregor Partev’, i.e., St Gregory the Parthian, 
denoting his origin. Ormanian, p. 8. He lived from approx. 240 to 332 a.d. 


and he subsequently became Trdat IT. Meanwhile, Gregory also returned 
to the homeland after the expulsion of the Persians and immediately 
started preaching Christianity to the pagans amidst his native countrymen. 
It did not take long before King Trdat II discovered him and at once arrested 
him as the son of his father’s assassin, and as the enemy of his pagan gods. 
After having suffered great tortures, Gregory was ultimately cast into a 
dungeon of the Artashat (Artaxata) Fortress in the province of Ararat. He 
spent approximately fifteen years in that pit and was secretly fed by a widow 
to whom he owed his survival. During that period, the Armenian king in¬ 
flicted an unremitting persecution upon his Christian subjects, and many of 
them earned the crown of martyrdom at his hands. Amongst his victims was 
a group of thirty-seven virgins including St Gayane 1 and St Hripsime, still 
commemorated by the Armenian Church on 5 October every year. The story 
runs that the latter virgin was extremely beautiful and that she captivated 
the king, but his approaches to her were met by scorn. After her martyrdom, 
he became incensed by his own cruelties and was haunted with the idea that 
he was demoniacally turned into a wild boar. 2 

The historian of the reign of Trdat II, who was the royal secretary and 
who wrote under the nom deplume Agathangelus, 3 provides us with the details 
of what happened afterwards, leading to the final and total adoption of 
Christianity as the state religion in the kingdom of Armenia. The story, which 
falls largely within the realm of legend, is interesting in its general significance. 
The writer speaks of two divinely inspired visions. First, the king’s sister 
Khosrovitookhd 4 told her brother that she had dreamt of a man with a 
radiant face who informed her that the persecution of Christians must cease 
and that St Gregory must be summoned to show them the only way to relieve 
the king from his affliction. The king accepted her advice, and the saint was 
brought from the pit. Through his prayers, the king’s health and sanity were 
restored, and he was subsequently baptized with all his household. The 
second vision 5 came to St Gregory while he was meditating once at midnight. 
As in a dream, he witnessed the sudden opening of the firmament like a 
pavilion, and the I,ord descended from heaven surrounded by cohorts of 
winged figures, and the earth shone with resplendent light. Calling Gregory 
by his name to watch the miracles Fie was about to reveal to him, the Lord 
struck the earth with a golden hammer, and an immense pedestal of gold 

1 She was the abbess of a community of nuns in the old capital Vaghashapat. Ormanian, 
p. 9. 

2 The name Trdat, or Tiridates, literally meant ‘gift of the Wild Boar God’. Arpee, 
p. 16. 

3 1 'he main source of Trdat’s reign was written by his own secretary under the pen 
name Agathangelus. See Agathange, His to ire du regne de Tiridate et de la predication de Saint 
Gregoire l ’ Il/nminateur, in Coll, des historians anciens et modernes de /’ Armenie, ed. V. Langlois, 
T, 105-200. 

4 Op. cit., I, 150-52. 

5 Op. cit., I, 156-59. 


emerged in the midst of the town, on which arose a column of fire with a 
cloud as its capital surmounted by a shining cross. Three other columns, red 
as blood, also surmounted with luminous crosses rose around the bigger 
column, evidently on the spots where the bodies of the said saints were laid 
to rest. The four crosses formed an arch on which stood a grand edifice with 
cupola, and on top he saw a golden throne with a fiery cross. From this 
wondrous edifice flowed abundant streams that flooded the plains beyond, 
and there were also innumerable altars of fire with crosses resembling the 
stars in the firmament. Then tremendous flocks of black goats crossed the 
water and became white lambs which multiplied in numbers. Suddenly half 
of them crossed the water again and turned into wolves which attacked the 
lambs and the scene was one of bloody carnage. The lambs had wings and 
joined the Lord’s cohorts and fire descended on earth and devoured the 
wolves. The earth trembled as the day broke, and the vision ended. 

It is said that St Gregory built an image of the mystical temple he saw in 
the place of the great column amidst the town of Vagharshapat, the name of 
which he changed to Etshmiadzin, that is, r the Only-begotten has descended’. 1 
This is the famous legend of Etshmiadzin, which appears to be apocryphal in 
character. The large gold column presumably represented Armenian primacy 
carrying its independent church, the other columns the souls of the martyrs, 
the black goats and white sheep the Armenian population before and after 
its evangelization, and the wolves its persecutors. 

With the baptism of the king and the members of his court, it may be 
assumed that the progress of Christianity became a rapid process under the 
sponsorship of the state. Gregory was nominated by the king as catholicus 
of the Armenian Church and sent to Cassarea for consecration by the Metro¬ 
politan Leontius and his bishops about the year 301. The pomp of the 
procession in his escort shows the aristocratic origin of the Church and the 
close ties with royalty which marked its subsequent history. The saint rode 
the royal golden chariot drawn by rare white mules with a body-guard of 
mounted satraps and their armed followers. On his return from the ordina¬ 
tion offices, the king in person together with all his royal family and depen¬ 
dents left the capital and pressed onward to meet him on the way, and the 
two processions were united at the foot of Mount Nbad on the bank of the 
upper Euphrates, where mass conversions took place. Thus Christianity 
became the state religion for the first time in history, some dozen years 
before the recognition was given to the new religion in the Roman empire 
by the ‘Edict of Milan’ in 313. The Armenians to the present day pride them¬ 
selves in this achievement. 2 

The next phase in St Gregory’s life after his consecration was the task of 

1 Fortcscue, Lesser Churches , p. 399. 

2 Arpcc, pp. 15-20; Ormanian, pp. 8-10. 


completing the Christianization of all his people and the organization of t